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Raising Hell 

Bettye LaVette flips the script on soul salvation

Tired of seeing his favorite performers relegated to also-ran status as their careers progressed into middle age, famed producer and recording maverick Rick Rubin had the bright idea to take things into his own hands, inking aging artists like Donovan, Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond to his label, American. His plan? Surround the old-timers with younger, edgier musicians not yet old enough to develop a "style" (i.e., a formula), work hand-in-hand with the artists to hand-pick a few choice covers for each record, and convince all those assembled to go for broke.

In recent years, the label Anti- has gotten in on this act, signing performers like Merle Haggard and soul legend Solomon Burke. Yet, the label's latest signing of the sort, soulstress Bettye LaVette, might be their biggest reclamation project to date.

Since recording the single "My Man -- He's a Loving Man" for Northern/Atlantic in 1962, LaVette has been on more record labels than the ASCAP logo (she's cut tracks for Silver Fox, SSS, TCA, Atco, Big Wheel, West End, Epic, Bar/None and more). Never one to spend a lot of time penning her own songs -- "If you write a story, I can make it a stronger story," she says, "but I rarely think of a story I ever want to write myself" -- LaVette's had minor hits with numerous cover versions of other artists' work. These include: Kenny Rogers and the First Edition's "What Condition My Condition Was In," Joe South's "Games People Play," the Beatles' "With a Little Help From My Friends," Erma Franklin's "Piece of My Heart," Joe Simon's "It's Your Turn to Cry," Neil Young's "Heart of Gold," Charlie Rich's "Behind Closed Doors," Etta James' "Damn Your Eyes" and Free's (!) "The Stealer."

Producer Joe Henry, the knob-twiddler for LaVette's latest, I've Got My Own Hell to Raise (as well as the musician behind the board for Solomon Burke's comeback-cum-magnum-opus, Don't Give Up On Me), collaborated with LaVette's husband, Kevin Kiley, as well as Anti- president Andy Kaulkin in coming up with some 100 songs for the singer's perusal. All of which, it turns out, were written by women. Hell to Raise sees LaVette wrapping her smoke-cured cords around country (Dolly Parton's "Little Sparrow," Rosanne Cash's "On the Surface," Bobbie Cryner's "Just Say So"), rock (Fiona Apple's "Sleep to Dream," Lucinda Williams' "Joy," Sinéad O'Connor's "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got," Toni Brown's "Only Time Will Tell Me") and more straightforward singer-songwriter fare (Joan Armatrading's "Down to Zero," Aimee Mann's "How Am I Different").

At once fiercely raw and expressive, while also timeworn and emotionally cracked, LaVette's is the voice of experience -- if experience is to start singing in juke joints at the age of 16. LaVette points to former manager Jim Lewis as the single largest influence on her current singing style. Lewis would insist LaVette sing along with Sarah Vaughan and Frank Sinatra records to learn phrasing and timbre subtleties. LaVette insisted at the time that such fancy singing experience didn't matter at the juke joints she was frequenting for gigs. Lewis responded by asking if where she was, was where she always wanted to be.

Where she wanted to be was in the studio. After 10 years in the business, LaVette visited Muscle Shoals, Alabama, in 1972 with the Memphis Horns to record her debut full-length, to be titled Child of the Seventies. Atlantic 86'ed the disc before it could be released, and it wasn't to see the light of day until French soul aficionado Gilles Petard rereleased the recording, since retitled Souvenirs, in 2000.

A decade after her failed 1972 sessions, LaVette finally saw the release of her second full-length, Tell Me a Lie. Cut in Nashville and released by Motown, the album was lightly promoted and died a quick death on the charts. Since the Petard rerelease, subsequent CDs have appeared on the market, including the live Let Me Down Easy -- In Concert (Dutch Munich) and 2003's A Woman Like Me (Blues Express). The latter disc helped LaVette cop a 2004 W.C. Handy Award for "Comeback Blues Album of the Year."

Having spent the last 40-odd years perfecting her craft via soul and R&B, LaVette decided that her Anti- introduction to a wider audience should be more than just another soul record. After all, she'd recorded plenty of those before, and many never saw the light of day. No, her new record would show the world a side of Bettye LaVette they'd never, ever seen before: the flip side.

Much like Rubin's best Cash records, Jack White's work with Loretta Lynn on Van Lear Rose and Henry's own yeoman's work on Burke's Don't Give Up On Me, LaVette's I've Got My Own Hell To Raise succeeds by stripping away all the layers of gloss and overdubs and other studio trickery, allowing her wonderfully burnished voice to ring like a bon mot at the end of a Ray Carver story (see the devastating "Just Say So"). Hers are stories that could only come from a woman that's done what's she's done, seen what she's seen, and sung what she's sung. And they are LaVette's stories, despite the fact that someone else penned them -- she takes more than a few liberties with lyrics, by way of making the songs her own.

LaVette's voice provides the songs a reading that takes them from being merely well-written into the realm of truth, or at least what feels like it. The word "authentic" is overused -- especially when referencing African-American artists -- but there is something in that smooth-burning throat that makes you feel it. There's so much longing here: sometimes for a lover, sometimes for the past, sometimes in a sexual sense and sometimes by way of crying for release. The Mann and Armatrading covers are perhaps the best examples of this -- LaVette doesn't just reinvent these songs, she takes out a whole new emotional patent. The backing, for the most part tasteful and subdued, is meant to be what it is: mere backing choir for this heavenly soloist.

Which makes sense, of course. Finally getting her big chance after a near half-century in the business, rest assured Bettye LaVette's ready for her voice to be heard.

Bettye LaVette plays the Double Door Inn on Sat., Jan. 28, at 9pm. Tickets are $5. For more information, call 704-376-1446.

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