Several people have lamented the lack of music at Saturday’s HRC dinner despite the presence of powerhouse singers like Pink and Bette Midler who might have enlivened the marathon speeches with a few bars of something. I’m so glad I skipped all that for a smoldering evening of live soul music from two phenomenal singers — ageless wonders Bettye LaVette and Mavis Staples were at G.W.’s Lisner Auditorium and raised the roof.
Bettye opened with a nearly hour-long, 12-song set that focused on material she recorded on the four albums she’s released since her 2003 comeback, especially her latest release, “Interpretations,” a covers album of British rock classics.
I was pleasantly blown away. I’d read, of course, of Bettye’s unlikely career path, and even heard her sing live with Jon Bon Jovi at the inauguration concert. But the one album of hers I’d sampled (2005’s “I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise,” another covers album) had left me cold. Live, it turns out, she’s quite an interpretress.
LaVette shimmied and wailed through a smoking set whose highlights included both groove-heavy jams and down-tempo blues readings heavy with world-weary inflections. “You Don’t Know Me At All” and Eric Clapton’s “Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad” rocked the hardest and gave LaVette ample room to show off her limber sashaying dance moves. She even gyrated suggestively with her guitar player during the former, joking after about the “tawdry display.”
The slow cookers were the real highlights, though, since they gave LaVette, a master of nuance, plenty of time to massage and finesse the details. George Harrison’s “It’s a Pity,” Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me” and the encore, an exquisite rendition of Sinead O’Connor’s “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got,” had the audience in rapt attention. LaVette, thank God, took her good ole’ time and you could hear a pin drop during the pauses. Although the G.W. auditorium staff was a little guerilla on enforcing the no-camera policy, kudos to them for having the class to wait to seat latecomers between numbers.
LaVette’s making the most of a tricky situation. Anybody who loves great soul music is thrilled to see her getting some long-awaited props after what has to have been a frustrating career. At 64 she’s limber and trim and looks 20 years younger. One imagines — and this is really no exaggeration — that had the fates either looked down on her or she played her cards differently, LaVette could be filling stadiums with the same ease Tina Turner fills them. She really is that good. And yet it’s hard to get noticed when you have had only minor hits and do almost all covers.
Mavis and her band — three players and three singers — came on after a 25-minute intermission and played a nearly 90 minute set that focused almost exclusively on faithful renditions of the cuts from her new Jeff Tweedy (Wilco)-produced album “You Are Not Alone.”
Staples was in wonderfully fine voice. She grits and growls with a deep-throttled rumble not present in the ranges of her contemporaries like Aretha and Tina. The one slightly disappointing thing about her last few albums — 2007’s “We’ll Never Turn Back” was, thankfully, an exception — is that she’s often too reserved in the studio. Even 2008’s live album “Hope at the Hideout” was underwhelming and tame. Live, though, Staples really cuts loose as she did Saturday night, infusing songs like “Creep Along Moses” and “Last Train” with an urgency their recorded version’s lack. Set-opener “Wonderful Savior” wasn’t much different than its album arrangement, but with the audience clapping along and the sight of Staples sharing the stage with her sister — Staple Singers’ vet Yvonne — it was enough to elicit goosebumps.
Sadly, though, the set list was unimaginative. Staples has been recording so many years it would have been far more interesting to hear her dart around her canon a bit more. Staple Singers chestnuts like “I’ll Take You There” and “The Weight” were the only hits performed, though an old Pops composition “Freedom Highway” (which was also on “Hope”) also made the cut. I would have gladly traded in a few of the selections from the new album for “Pops Recipe,” “Step Into the Light” or “99 and 1/2,” the gospel standard Staples recorded with jaw-dropping innovation on “Turn Back.” Even something from her long-forgotten Prince collaboration would have been nice to hear.
An unexpected highlight, though, was a two-song instrumental jam mid-set that found guitarists Jeff Turmes and Rick Holmstrom — who also played on the new album — setting delightful atmospherics. Turmes’ slide interpretation of the spiritual “Balm in Gilead” fit the heavy-on-the-gospel nature of the evening but Holmstrom’s solo, an original called “Descano,” very nearly stole the show. It was a slow-peaking and sensual barn burner that had a few melodic similarities to “Shadow of Your Smile.” It started innocuously enough — let’s face it, most of us were wondering when Mavis would come back out — but by the end it had proved so intoxicating I felt rather removed from time and space and had had a sort of out-of-body experience.
1. The Word (Bettye)
2. I Still Want to Be Your Baby (Take Me Like I Am) (Bettye)
3. Isn’t It a Pity (Bettye)
4. Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood (Bettye)
5. You Don’t Know Me At All (Bettye)
6. Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me (Bettye)
* band intros
7. A Woman Like Me (Bettye)
8. Love Reign O’er Me (Bettye)
9. It Don’t Come Easy (Bettye)
10. Salt of the Earth (Bettye)
11. Why Does Love Got To Be So Sad (Bettye)
12. I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got (encore) (Bettye)
13. Wonderful Savior (Mavis)
14. Wrote a Song for Everyone (Mavis)
15. Creep Along Moses (Mavis)
16. The Weight (Mavis)
17. You Are Not Alone (Mavis)
18. Freedom Highway (Mavis)
19. Only the Lord Knows (Mavis)
20. Losing You (Mavis)
21. Too Close/On My Way to Heaven (Mavis)
22. Last Train (Mavis)
23. Balm In Gillead (slide guitar solo by Jeff Turmes)
24. Descano (guitar solo by Rick Holmstrom)
* band intros
25. I Belong to the Band (Mavis)
26. I’ll Take You There (Mavis)
27. We’re Gonna Make It (encore) (Mavis)