Van Halen rocked the United Center this evening. I think. I wasn’t there. I almost got sucked into the hype and had a pair of good seats in my Ticketmaster cart and then I looked at the price and said, “Cracky, what the fuck are you doing? You’ve already seen those guys, and think of how many Swiss Cake Rolls and Nutty Bars you can buy with that cash! And you have tickets to Bettye LaVette that night, dumbass.” I kicked my cart over, flipped off Ticketmaster and got my ass over to The Old Town School of Folk Music.
The annoying dude from WNUR came out to tell us that the show would start about 30 minutes late because Bettye was delayed getting into town. I offered to take the stage and entertain the crowd with some funeral dirges on which I’ve been working, but they felt it unnecessary. I never found out the offending airline, but making Ms. LaVette late has not helped endear me to their industry. I’ve received better customer service from lemonade stands run by eight year olds. But I digress.
Concerts are just like sex. After a few times you’re ready for someone new. This was the fourth time seeing Bettye in the last three years so I was worried the show might seem stale. Bettye clearly sensed my trepidation and whipped out her kama sutra songbook and brought me to full musical arousal once again. Dang.
Bettye has been at this for almost 50 years, out there on her own before Don Cornelius ever uttered “peace, love and crabs.” I think that’s what pushed Don over the edge… seeing all those horrible t-shirts from Joe’s Crab Shack. Got crabs? Hilarious!!! Again, I digress.
Bettye finally gained more widespread recognition in 2008 after covering The Who’s "Love Reign O’er Me" as Roger Daltrey sat in the crowd Googling “singing lessons” while Pete Townshend gave him a charley horse. The record from which that cover came also includes other British classic rockers, except she shows them boys how those songs should have been done. Cracky has a voice that rivals Sinatra, but you never hear him sing for fear that LaVette will take one of his tunes and put him to shame the same way she has so many others. "I'm a better editor. If you make a statement, I can make it a stronger statement. And, if you write a story, I can make it a stronger story.”
And you can almost see her step into each song, pulling on the book jacket from each song’s story and assuming the role of the lead character. If that song tells a story of pain, she sounds like she just fell in the mud and got kicked in the head with an iron boot. A song of betrayal, and you have a feeling she just might kick you in the nuts if you look a little too much like the man who wronged her. And… scene.
She drew less from Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, more from I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise (female songwriter covers), and reprised some classics from her past. Her ‘tween song banter isn’t gratuitous (“Hellooo Chicago!) but very genuine, and her stories explain why she’s released the albums she has and why each song is on the setlist. She struts like she owns the joint on some songs, dances like someone 40 years younger on others, sat cross-legged on the stage floor for one and finished us off with an acapella performance which captivated the crowd as if she had just kicked our butts in a game of freeze tag.
Earlier that day, tickets went on sale for a Fiona Apple show at intimate Lincoln Hall. Demand obviously outstripped supply, probably ten-fold. The people who did not get tickets acted as if you had kidnapped their kittens, dressed them as Fiona herself, and decapitated them on closed circuit television while forcing them to watch "Clockwork Orange" style. Ironically, Bettye soldiered on and did a cover of "Sleep to Dream" better than Fiona could ever dream to sing. My point, get over it, Fiona fans, and find yourself another swell show to see. They’re out there. Bettye proved that tonight. Crack Approved.
Note: If you’re friends with Cracky on Facebook and use Spotify, the setlist from the show is on Cracky’s playlists.