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Hell raised up in grandma's house



[Tonight's guest post comes from the desktop of OTD's esteemed colleague Jon Garelick]:

At the ripe young age of 59, the veteran Detroit singer Bettye LaVette is this year's new face in R&B. She made her first record when she was 16, had a few near misses, and (as she told the Phoenix recently), assumed she'd "die in obscurity" until she hooked up with producer Joe Henry for an album on Epitaph's Anti- imprint, I've Got My Own Hell To Raise.

She may not be famous yet, but she packed Johnny D's on Saturday night for her first local appearance since playing Estelle's in Roxbury back in the day. The house was a mix of musicians, young scenesters, and curious greybeards (your correspendent included), among them the Herald's Larry Katz, the Globe's Steve Morse (soon to be "ex-Globe," having taken the buyout), Planet Records' John Damroth, the ever-discerning Jack Wolker of Stereo Jack's, and that skinny Gandalf-looking guy with the long-hair, beard, and glasses who's been to every show of any significance that we've attended for the past 30 years. (Free-software genius? Dulcimer player who lives with Mom? Whatever. Someday we must introduce ourselves.)

Eli "Paperboy" Reed was the opener and, being young and white, gave it his all, replete with a three-man horn section. But, you know, he's young and white. Then again, it's not like LaVette didn't have skeptics. While some of the old-school hardliners in the crowd were willing to give her props for the all-female-written material on Hell To Raise, they weren't wild about the choice of females: Sinead, Fiona Apple, Joan Armatrading. Others just weren't knocked out by LaVette's Tina Turner rasp. No matter. LaVette -- sorry, no other way to put this -- bounded onstage and had everyone on her side in moments. Slim and limber in short bob hairdo, spaghetti-strap black tanktop, and pants, she gamboled across thestage in front of her four-piece band, flinging out those long arms, and somehow never losing her footing in her six-inch heels. She sang, shouted, bantered, scolded ("Act like you're in your grandmother's house," she told one overly vociferous reveler, "because you are in your grandmother's house.") She served up most of Hell To Raise, and a bit from last year's A Woman Like Me (Blues Express). She caressed one ballad while sitting at the foot of the stage, plied another rave-up walking into the crowd. After more than an hour, the band left LaVette alone onstage for the encore: an a cappella rendering of Sinead's "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got," making it sound like a lost soul classic. By that point, even the Sinead haters were on Bettye's side.

After the show, with the house lights on, she signed autographs from behind a table of CDs, working that fanbase, welcoming the converts. Addressing one new believer, she said, "Next time, don't try sneaking in without me seeing you."
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