As an appearance by R&B star Lauryn Hill filled the Uptown Theater on Monday, Bettye LaVette performed for about 125 people at the primary indoor stage at Knuckleheads. The marked contrast is illustrative of LaVette's ill-fated career.
She was overshadowed by artists like Etta James and Aretha Franklin in the 1960s, and LaVette continues to be unjustly overlooked. Unlucky breaks and bad decisions dimmed her prospects for decades, yet LaVette refused to surrender. Beginning with the 2005 album "I've Got My Own Hell To Raise," the resident of Detroit earned a modest but dedicated new base of fans that includes President Barack Obama.
She since has made several area appearances, from a stunning 2005 outing at the Hurricane (now the Riot Room) through last year's powerhouse effort at the 18th & Vine Jazz & Blues Festival. Monday's outing – an incendiary exercise in fiery defiance and impeccable artistry – topped them all.
"It's my 52nd year of show business and close to 70 years of life," LaVette said. "I've decided I no longer care what you think."
LaVette introduced "Close As I'll Get To Heaven" as "the song that most exemplifies the way I feel after my sudden, overnight success that only took 50 years." She howled that she has "been bruised, hurt and cheated on, but they still couldn't break me" during the wrenching composition.
A showman in the vein of Jackie Wilson and Tina Turner, LaVette prowled the stage like a brazen burlesque artist during a lurid version of the "The Stealer." She added a bit of salty language to a funky interpretation of Bob Dylan's "Everything Is Broken."
Backed by a stellar four-piece band, LaVette's 75-minute set included a range of styles. "Choices," a tear-inducing examination of the consequences of poor judgment, was faithful to the rendition associated with the country vocalist George Jones. A majestic reading of the Who's "Love Reign O'er Me" was spine-tingling. As she screamed in anguish and whispered in desperation on the classic rock staple, LaVette's firsthand experience with disappointment and heartache was readily apparent.
After suggesting that the members of the audience might be interested in reading her 2012 biography, LaVette announced that "the Alicia Keys corporation has purchased the right to my book for a movie."
She concluded her outing with an a cappella version of "I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got." The Sinead O'Connor composition is usually the highlight of LaVette's performances. On Monday it merely served as the exceptional finale to a flawless night of unforgettable music.