Stories » Bettye LaVette - Blackbird celebrates black female voices / Variety

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Bettye LaVette - Blackbird celebrates black female voices / Variety

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Bettye LaVette is widely - and wisely - revered as one of our greatest living rhythm and blues singers, and maybe right there at the pinnacle. Her star as a knock-down, drag-out, leave-no-prisoners stylist has risen in the decade and a half since she made her return to prominence in her late 50s, 60s and now early 70s after decades of having seemed publicly MIA. But her comeback hasn't been fueled by mining the great American R&B songbook for material. She's remade her name these past 15 or so years by putting a blues spin on rock songs, for the most part, in conceptual albums from "I've Got My Own Hell to Raise" (in which she covered female singer-songwriters like Fiona Apple and Aimee Mann) to "Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook." Someone may have been in the kitchen with Dinah - Dinah Washington, that is - but LaVette has been hanging in the parlor with Dylan.

Until now. "Blackbirds" is another concept album, but one that hits a lot closer to home base by looking to the catalogs of the women who were probably heroines to LaVette back when she had her first hit at age 16 in 1962: legends like Washington, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Ruth Brown, Nancy Wilson and Della Reese. The sole outlier is a song that's about "blackbirds" rather than by them: the Beatles' "Blackbird," which Paul McCartney has said was inspired by the Black women of the civil rights movement. There's just one newish pick, "One More Song," a worthy torch ballad from Sharon Robinson, Leonard Cohen's frequent co-writer. Everything else is from the 1939-68 period when "Black is beautiful" could have described how these great divas dominated midcentury hi-fis everywhere, before the phrase got codified into the counterculture. That this album, whose underlying purpose is celebrating some of the most powerful and iconic Black women of the previous century, is coming out almost simultaneously with a Black woman being named to a presidential ticket is pure coincidence. But for anyone who likes to believe everything is connected, "Blackbirds" makes for a hell of a companion album for the moment.

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