Jeff Tamarkin on July 19, 2023
For her newest studio album, singer Bettye LaVette once again throws the rulebook away. In the past she’s covered songs by everyone from Bob Dylan to Sam Cooke and Fiona Apple, and she once released an entire album of covers culled from British Invasion bands. But for LaVette!, the Detroit native—who first recorded back in 1962— focuses on someone considerably less famous: With the prolific producer/musician Steve Jordan (who currently occupies the late Charlie Watts’ drum stool in The Rolling Stones) guiding her, LaVette devotes the entre album to the songs of Randall Bramblett, the multi-instrumentalist, singer and songwriter whose own résumé includes connections to The Allman Brothers Band, Widespread Panic, Gov’t Mule and Steve Winwood. In pre-release promotion for the album, LaVette raves about Bramblett’s writing, and if her sole goal here was to translate those compositions into LaVette-esque soul, then she succeeds admirably. (LaVette goes so far as to call Bramblett “the best songwriter I’ve heard in the past 30 years.”) To help her get there, Jordan got busy, calling in an all-star support cast that included John Mayer, Jon Batiste, Ray Parker Jr., Pedro Martinez and Winwood himself, among others. The 11-song program runs from the flat-out rockin’ (“Don’t Get Me Started,” “Mess About It”) to “Hard to Be a Human”—a funk-driven jumper— featuring bassist Pino Palladino, keyboardist Leon Pendarvis, guitarists Larry Campbell and Chris Bruce, saxophonist James Carter and, of course, Jordan on drums— that exudes a cool Muscle Shoals-Memphis earthiness. In “Plan B,” a midtempo blues showcasing pure LaVette grit, the vocalist declares boldly that she “ain’t got” what the song title suggests she might want. And that’s just fine—it may have taken her several decades to get to the point where she can simply title an album LaVette! and be assured that plenty of people will know who that is, but she’s there now, and there’s no going back.