Published Jun 24, 2012Working with just a four-piece band, legendary soul singer Bettye LaVette proved less can be more at her Toronto Jazz Fest set, commandeering the stage effortlessly. Her stage banter may be self-absorbed, but she has paid so many dues, she deserves the time in the spotlight she's now seizing voraciously.
LaVette is a song stylist whose raspy voice oozes soul. She's more Edith Piaf than Aretha Franklin, so, given Piaf's "Little Sparrow" nickname, it's appropriate LaVette's set list included a cover of Dolly Parton's "Little Sparrow." Her eclectic song selection ranged from Lucinda Williams (a slow-burning take on "Joy" was a highlight) to Pete Townshend.
A good chunk of LaVette's show was devoted to tunes from her 2010 album, Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook. She jokingly explained that "these were songs written by English guys in their 20s when they were high, and now reinterpreted by a 66-year-old black woman." Some worked better than others, and perhaps surprisingly a Ringo Starr song ("It Don't Come Easy") outshone rather dirge-like versions of George and Paul songs ("Isn't It a Pity" and "Blackbird").
The set sagged a little in the middle with a succession of slow ballads, but a riveting version of "Love Reign O'er Me" drew a standing ovation. LaVette saved the best for last, closing out her 90-minute set alone on stage, wringing pure emotion out of Sinead O'Connor's "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got." To paraphrase another Sinead song, nothing compares to LaVette.