That was one cold Friday night in State College, but I bundled up and skidded down to the recently rennovated State Theater to see sombody I'd been waiting forty years to watch perform live, Betty LaVette. Back in the day, which is to say back in my day, I walked around the streets of D.C. humming the chorus to "Right in the Middle of Falling in Love."
It was a great song, one of many she released in a career than began with her first studio release at the age of sixteen. But, as happens all too frequently in the music industry, the broader recognition her talents deserved just wouldn't seem to come.
Despite a string of soulful records easily the match of much better-known artists, LaVette's career never quite brought her the successes that seemed to come so easily to many who had much less to offer. But Betty LaVette never stopped working, turning out one house after the other with her burning soul work outs. Records like her cover of Joe Simon's "Your Turn to Cry" would grab hold of your heart and wouldn't let go till you gave yourself over wholly to the music. Her work on John Prine's "Souvenirs," at a time when his own record company was still praying he'd be the next Dylan, found the heart of the song, brought out the R & B framework hiding within that folkie material.
But the industry was never entirely behind this remarkable talent. Just when she should have been reaching her peak, her label dropped the album whose release she had eagerly awaited.
This "child of the seventies," as one of her CDs is now titled, never gave up, and neither did her audience. There were modest highlights, like her killer performances in the stage show Bubbling Brown Sugar. Then, three years ago, things finally began to break Betty's way. One of her CDs won the W.C. Handy award, the world of music journalism began to pay attention (everybody loves a comeback story, even me), and she landed a recording contract again.
And has been touring like a Dylan or a B.B. King ever since. Which is how I came to find myself in front of her at last, in the second row, just four feet away from her, as she did her set at the State Theater. The crowd was small that night, but wildly appreciative. (One car load of folks had driven all the way from Philadelphia for this show.) Betty and her band responded with a show that must rank among their best. There have been few moments in my recent years of concert-going that can compare to hearing Betty LaVette singing "As Close as I'll Get to Heaven" at the climax of her show, or what we all thought was the climax -- till she did an incredibly gutsy thing. Betty LaVette closes her shows now by letting the whole band leave the satge and standing there alone to sing "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got" with a voice that lifts you out of your seat, out of your day, out of the everyday and makes a Baptist out of you. Even the atheists in the crowd were happy with that, just as all of us who had stumbled through the frozen February streets to get there were none-the-less happy to feel that chill reaching down our spines as we listened.
Betty's back on the road, at the top of her talents, and with all her music back in print. Do yourself a favor and send your browser over to one of those on-line stores you visit and get some of Ms. LaVette's soul-stirring works. You can thank me later.
and here we see Betty LaVette and bassist Patrick Prouty in the lobby of the theater afterwards. One of the great things about small theaters and shows like this is that you can talk with the artists following the show.