Things Have Changed by Bettye Lavette
review by Kevin Harvey
In the last songs Bob Dylan wrote- we can go back to Time out of Mind, but there are songs on Under the Red Sky and No Mercy that demand to be included- Dylan’s persona- his narrator, if you will- was a disembodied warrior on the verge of collapse. Done talking, he was silently walking through an ominous fog, unsure of what lay ahead, moving because he was built to move. And he was very clear about it: Don’t get up gentleman, I’m only passing through. Bettye Lavette was listening.
For our discussion today let me limit the great soul singers to four: Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, and Bettye Lavette. I know there are others, many others, but TIME demands we focus. Billie left us long ago, and Nina, too, is gone. Aretha, forever rumored to be in poor health, is alive and one hopes is doing fine. Bettye Lavette, unknown to most until she brought Pete Townsend and Roger Daltry to the point of tears by trashing the Kennedy Center with a version of Love Reign Over Me, a version that told the world it could forget THAT song now: It belonged to Ms. Lavette.
Which brings us back to Bob Dylan. Bettye Lavette has done the impossible: she’s taken Bob Dylan’s persona, his Nobel lyrics, to a whole other level. Things Have Changed is more than a great cover album: the gifted NINA made brilliant covers- her Susanne is still best I’ve ever heard- but her covers were always covers, wonderful interpretations of Bob’s songs, or George Harrison’s, or Mr. Cohen’s, but they still belonged to the given writer. Bettye Lavette has done something else entirely: Call it stealing if you must, but she he has taken ownership of the material in a way that amounts to an act of magic, nothing less. For the most part she avoids songs familiar to the wider world, but even those that are as well- known as Sonny and Cher’s covers are different creatures. It Ain’t Me, Babe, by changing babe to baby, hands us something to hold that is a thousand pounds heavier than a single letter. Go lightly from the ledge, baby, tells us something about ALL of Bob’s work that we hadn’t quite verbalized: He was always on the ledge, the dark side of the road, that everything in side was made of stone. Lavette takes control of 50 years of songs, crushes them, and shows us something we’d missed. He ain’t talkin’, he’s walkin’, and Bettye Lavette recognizes that the same back- against- the- wall heartbreak has been there from the beginning. Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight is magnificent, a song I loved was suddenly deeper, with a grin raising lyric change, bringing in Tina Turner and Ike. Emotionally Yours, a song I’d snobbishly by-assed, is a transcendent shocker. l974’s Going, Going, Gone was written on the edge of that same old ledge. Go lightly, indeed. Heard now at the close of the album, you hear: It’s Not Dark Yet, but it’s getting there. There is a pain in her voice that tells us she, too, is walking the dark side of the road. And yet, Lavette is so good that it takes a fourth play-through while driving, out motoring on the astral plane, to realize just superb her back-up band is: Larry Campbell, Steve Jordon, player and producer, the eagle-eyed Keith Richards- who never plays in the minor leagues- adds a dark and ragged solo to Political World! And you are suddenly forced reevaluate the whole set list: Seeing the Real You at Last, sounds like a threat; Mama You Been on My Mind stands outside gender-role definition; The Times They Are A-Changin’, beaten down by the years, is infused with new life, a whisper of something new. When Bettye Lavette silently passes Bob in the fog, both long past talking- now just walking- I suspect they will exchange nods of admiration. Because knowing all that they know, a simple nod is more than enough. It may be more than we deserve.