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July 10, 2009

Bettye: Breathtaking! Buddy? You Tell Me...

Bette Quick quiz: Which of these things would you be doing during an indoor concert to show your respect to an amazing artist who is singing her heart out, and to your fellow concertgoers who have paid $35-40 to see the show? A) Talking constantly. B) Texting. C) Smoking cigarettes and cigars. If you answered D) "I'm not a boor who would do any of the above," you are correct! Unfortunately, A-C surrounded me last night as I tried to soak in Bettye LaVette's terrific performance at the Quad's Waterfront Stage in Burlington. It was the first night of glorious weather in what seemed like forever, perfect for enjoying music as the sun--remember the sun?--started to recline over the Adirondacks. I did my best to tune out the rude texting and talking, but after sucking down half a steroid inhaler, I decided staying for Buddy Guy wasn't in the cards. Note to nicotine addicts: Some of us really are allergic.

That aside, I'm still glad I got to hear Bettye LaVette sing live. This grande dame of soul has so much color, texture and dimension to her voice--qualities that can't possibly be captured fully on a recording. (Although I admit I'm headed over to iTunes and Amazon after I've finished my work this weekend to treat myself! Nothing like a little scientific study of the subject, right?) LaVette's stage presence is also remarkable. She powered through her 55-minute set with the vigor of a woman half her age (63), moving and grooving on uptempo numbers--wearing an impressive pair of high heels. She also had to perform while facing directly into unshaded sunlight, which was still pretty strong at 7 p.m. "I wish the sun was shining on y'all instead of me," she joked early in the show. 

But LaVette's energy never flagged. In fact, it seemed the men who made up her tight ensemble--most of whom looked much younger than the diva--were working awfully hard to keep up with her. The middle part of her set was a chronological career retrospective, starting in the early 1960s. It showed her range: Some numbers were slower and bluesier; some had more of an upbeat Motown edge. One particularly awesome moment took place when she put down the mike to riff with growly intensity on the word "never." The song (about a man) was from 1963, and the full lyric was: "It's a pity and a shame/You'll never change." Word, girl! 

I'll 'fess up that I wasn't familiar with LaVette's work until I heard her sing at the Inaugural Celebration concert at the Lincoln Memorial. For some reason, my emotions let loose that day. The music somehow released eight years of pent-up political stress. I was especially moved when LaVette and Jon Bon Jovi sang Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come," a civil rights protest song. Cooke's original is already a fave; it's even in my iPod workout mix. I DVR'd the concert, and have rewatched LaVette's duet version many times.

She sang a slow, forceful "A Change..." last night. She personalized the lyrics to her experience: a woman who has lived through so much of what needed to be changed. "I go to the movies and I go downtown/Somebody keeps telling me, little girl you can't come around." You believe her when she gets to the final line, which she has altered from "I know a change is gonna come" to "I knew change had to come." Her a cappella encore, a gospel number about surviving time in the desert and having gratitude for the bread of life, was a musically and emotionally fitting finale.

So, you tell me: How was Buddy Guy? 

Buddy Guy was great too! He made a point of how he was putting across a feeling - he turned down to about a tenth of his regular volume, and played beautifully for minutes, getting us to focus...something I've never seen a white blues band do, that's for sure! Great show, even if he did make some wisecracks for the frat crowd like, "You want me to play all night? I'll play all night!" After the cheering and all, he had it worked out so there was about ten or 15 minutes left in the set, and no encore...
They were both true pros, and brought a great show to our town.

Thanks, Charlie, for filling me in on Buddy Guy. Sounds every bit as terrific as Bettye LaVette. I'm SO sorry to have missed it. What a treat to have two headliners on the same bill...and on such a beautiful night.

Too bad that organizational stuff interfered with enjoying such phenomenal artistry. Simple things such as banning smoking, keeping folks with high lawn chairs seated at the back, the customary (but important!) reminder to turn off your bleeping cell phone, etc. Props to a group like the Vermont Mozart Festival for having logistics like this down pat. Then you can concentrate on soaking in the music!

Beautiful night for a show, great venue. I thought Bettye was great, but that Buddy was so-so... Oh, Buddy's got the chops, but his set was un-spontaneous and unimaginative. How many times has he done the "Muddy Waters did it like this?" or "John Lee Hooker did it like this?" or "Jimi Hendrix copied me?" shtick? Bor-ing! You're a great musician, man, just play! And yes, the audience was generally loud and discourteous -- had to squeeze in to the middle towards the front so the amplification could drown out the folks on the fringes who were yakking away.

Thanks for your input, George. I understand that outdoor concert etiquette is more relaxed than when you're inside. But I don't get the point of attending a show--and paying good money to do so--and then yapping, smoking and texting your way through the whole thing. Not to mention all the people who seemed to be walking around during numbers. It's a CONCERT, folks...not a lakeside picnic.

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