Bettye LaVette – Change Is Gonna Come Sessions EP

January 01, 1970



Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” has become the
unofficial anthem of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and victory, with
artists as varied as Arcade Fire and Seal performing it in his honor. Bettye
LaVette, the 63-year-old soul-based vocal stylist enjoying one of pop music’s
more remarkable (and deserved) late-career flowerings, did a gutsy version of
the civil-rights plea at last January’s Inaugural Celebration at Lincoln
Memorial, although it was marred when Jon Bon Jovi turned up to make it a duet.
On this six-song (digital-only) EP, available exclusively through iTUNES,
LaVette gets a chance to sing it solo. Not only does she make you forget Bon Jovi,
she comes damn close to making you forget Cooke’s original 1964 version,
inspired by the civil-rights struggle.


With her voice’s lava-like eruptions of emotional fervor,
LaVette can easily, powerfully sing like a possessed, gospel-influenced soul singer
who can get raw. And that’s not a learned trait; it seems wired into her
psyche. But she also carefully enunciates and builds dramatic tension and
lyrical meaning like a Broadway performer, which she also has been (Bubbling
Brown Sugar).
In strengths, her nearest peer is Tina Turner, but LaVette –
at this career stage – is doing far more mature and meaningful (to her)


Her version of “Change” brings out all her skills, and then
adds some new ones. Sensitively arranged by producer/musical director Al Hill,
with strings contributed by DeVotchKa’s Tom Hagerman, the song has the stately
and elegiac, slightly mournful, feel of one of Randy Newman’s ballads, perhaps
“Louisiana 1927.” Yet there is also a pronounced jazz-blues-cabaret intimacy to
it – the drummer uses brushes, for instance. As a great interpreter should,
LaVette keeps you keenly involved in where she’s going to take this song,
because it’s not obvious. But it does become revelatory at the end, when she
sings, “A change has come.” Her version is bittersweet, never wandering
too far away from the hardships revealed in the lyrics, yet also cautiously but
ultimately triumphant. Cautiously because, well, it has been a long time
comin’ – and there’s no way to get those years back. In addition to being about
Obama and the civil-rights struggle at-large, her version is autobiographical.
It’s masterful.


The rest of the EP shows LaVette’s restrained authority and
freshness with jazz and blues classics – “Round Midnight,” “Lush Life,” “God
Bless the Child” and “Ain’t That Lovin’ You Baby” – and should serve to broaden
her appeal beyond the older rock/soul/Americana audience attracted to her
career-revival work on Anti- with Drive-By Truckers and Joe Henry. (The EP also
includes a mesmerizing, minimalist version of cover of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No
Sunshine.”) There is still a side of LaVette that deserves a full album, her
way of infusing excitement into such classic-rock material as “Love Reign O’er
Me” (from the Kennedy Center tribute to The Who) and Van Morrison’s “Real, Real
Gone” (from the Vanthology tribute album). She makes anything she sings
sound new.


Standout Tracks: “A Change Is Gonna Come,” “Lush Life” STEVEN ROSEN





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