BETTYE LaVETTE brings the British Invasion home to its American R&B roots on her latest CD, Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, released May 25, 2010 on Anti-. While Bettye’s Grammy-nominated 2007 disc, The Scene Of The Crime, went to the source to find triumph over her own anguish, Interpretations looks to the past this time for inspiration and uncovers common ancestry in seemingly divergent musical paths.
Produced by Bettye, Rob Mathes, and Michael Stevens, the album is a 13-song journey through compositions by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd, among others, concluding right where the very idea for Interpretations started: Bettye’s visceral show-stopping rendition of The Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me” from the 2008 Kennedy Center Honors, which appears here as a bonus track.
That performance – which first brought Bettye together with Stevens (the event’s producer) and Mathes (its musical director) – served notice that Bettye is no mere singer. As an extraordinary interpreter of song, she doesn’t merely mold a piece of music to suit her tastes; she is a conjurer of deep, emotional truths:
“Bettye LaVette punched a hole right through her version of Pete Townshend’s ‘Love Reign O’er Me,’ letting all the song’s emotion pour out in a way that its creators never conceived,” observed the New York Daily News. Townshend himself came up to Bettye after her performance, took her hands into his and said, “You made me weep.”
Throughout Interpretations, her performances are a revelation not just of raw emotion, but of the inexorable ties between British rock ’n’ roll and the American blues and R&B, which, when combined, catalyzed popular music. That Lennon, McCartney, and so many others who crossed the Atlantic in their wake, were deeply influenced by American music is no great secret. What Bettye demonstrates here so convincingly is the degree to which rock ’n’ roll and American soul remain bound by bloodlines.
The Beatles’ pre-psychedelic Rubber Soul classic “The Word” takes on an almost religious fervor, while Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed” is transformed from a majestic pop song into a stark, almost desperate expression of devotion. Profound alienation becomes intense longing on Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” and the wistful naiveté of The Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin” matures into a deep and unshakeable lament. Bettye inhabits these songs, revitalizes them and exposes the humanity that makes these 13 tracks not just pop songs, but enduring works of art.
Such mastery hardly comes as a surprise to at least one legend featured here. Elton John (whose “Talking Old Soldiers” appeared on The Scene Of The Crime) offers this endorsement of Bettye’s impassioned take on “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me”:
“Bettye LaVette has always been a wonderful singer – I have been a huge fan for many years. To my delight and surprise she recorded an amazing version of ‘Talking Old Soldiers’ – a song that nobody else has covered – and made it her own.
“Now she has recorded ‘Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me’ and has done exactly the same – but this time with a much more familiar song. I am truly touched by her picking these songs and can only hope that this album brings more attention to this incredible artist.”