Thursday, July 12, 2018
Singer Bettye LaVette's latest album, Things Have Changed, is made up of her stunning interpretations of 12 Bob Dylan songs. She and her band will perform the record from beginning to end on Saturday during a concert at the Center for Humanities and Arts Theater at University of Arkansas Pulaski Technical College in North Little Rock.
She has a question, though.
7 p.m. Saturday, the Center for Humanities and Arts, University of Arkansas Pulaski Technical College, 3000 W. Scenic Drive, North Little Rock
Admission: $20, standing room; $35-$50, reserved seating; $75 VIP
"In doing the album from top to bottom, do you think a [North] Little Rock audience would be that familiar with all of those tunes?" the 72-year-old asks during an interview from her home in West Orange, N.J.
If they aren't they should be, and they should certainly be familiar with LaVette's versions of songs like the title cut, "Mama, You Been on My Mind," "Emotionally Yours," "What Was It You Wanted" and others.
With her beautifully weathered, soulful voice and backed by her supremely tasteful band, which includes producer/drummer Steve Jordan, she breathes new life into these Dylan compositions.
Not that LaVette had much of a relationship with them at first. Her friend and executive producer, Carol Friedman, suggested the idea of an album of Dylan tracks.
"She had always wanted to hear this," LaVette says, "so she presented it to [label] Universal/Verve and they accepted it. Who was I to not do it?"
LaVette's husband, Kevin Kiley, whom she describes as a "music enthusiast" while adding "and I am not," dug through about 100 tracks and then narrowed the bunch to about 30 for LaVette to vet.
"I generally choose songs because I can sing 'em," she says with a laugh. "It's not hard to choose songs. They're like lovers who you want to be in bed with."
She was worried about how Dylan fans would react, but her fretting was for naught.
"They're more like a little church, you know what I mean? But they have been surprisingly receptive of the songs," she says.
And while many may kneel at the altar of Dylan, to LaVette, one of the all-time great musical interpreters, these tracks are no different from others she has recorded in her career, which started in the early '60s in her hometown of Detroit.
"I think of them as songs. Just songs, like the ones Cole Porter wrote, and the ones Billy Strayhorn wrote. Some of them you have to be a little better to sing, but they're still just songs."
Digging into them live, she says, is a treat.
"'Ain't Talkin' is such a spooky song, to me, and my guys do such a good job keeping the spookiness on the stage," she says of the song from Dylan's Modern Times.
She adds, "I'm also having a great time with 'Things Have Changed.' I feel that he wrote that for me, but he just couldn't find me."
So, have she and the notoriously quirky Dylan ever spoken about the album?
"Does he speak to people?" she asks, laughing.
Turns out they haven't chatted, but she does have a Dylan story.
It was at a concert a few years ago in Italy and LaVette, who had just performed, wanted to leave her dressing room. Dylan was about to take the stage, though, and she was told by security that no one could leave their dressing rooms until he had gotten onstage.
Not that LaVette, whose albums include The Scene of the Crime with the Drive-By Truckers, Worthy, Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, Tell Me A Lie, Thankful N' Thoughtful, among others, was going to pay any attention to such nonsense.
"I was so angry. Please. I won't tell you what I told them," she says, chuckling. "I came on out of the dressing room, he was coming out of his dressing room, and I said, 'Hey! Robert Dylan!'"
Dylan turned around and looked at her, LaVette says.
"His bass player, who I found out later was a fan of mine, was walking with him and I saw him say to Bob, 'That's Bettye LaVette.' [Dylan] stopped walking, came over, took my face in both his hands, kissed me full on the mouth and then walked on the stage. My poor band just about fainted. That's the only contact I've ever had with him."
She and Keith Richards had a much better time together.
The Rolling Stones guitarist, who played with drummer Jordan in the X-Pensive Winos, added some licks to the album and hung out with LaVette in the studio.
"We had a great time. We're both old people, and he came in early in the morning with his vodka on ice, I came in with my champagne and we smoked and drank. It was 11 o'clock in the morning and everybody just looked at us.
"We decided that had we known each other in the '60s, we would have gotten into so much trouble."
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