After an entire day being wedged with two bickering and angst-ridden girls in a small sweaty apartment, I strong-armed both of them up to Madison Square Park for the conservancy's last summer concert: Bettye LaVette. The girls asked who was playing, and I was vague. "Some blues singer," I said. Because truth was I knew almost nothing about Bettye LaVette a blues/R&B singer who recorded her first single at 16 and has been touring pretty consistently for the past 50 years.
The second reason for my vagueness was I thought they wouldn't want to go if they knew how old the performer was.
I'd never heard of Bettye LaVette, but the lawn at Madison Square Park soon filled up, and I sent the girls for burgers, fries and shakes at The Shake Shack (part of my bribe).
There was no opener--just a five-piece band and Bettye.
She did mostly covers, called herself a song interpreter, instead of a vocalist. Her vocals were great, as you'll hear below: gritty, soulful, and emotional. During her 45 minute set, she covered Neil Young, The Who, Lucinda Williams, The Beatles, Ray Charles and Ringo Starr. She was often uncomfortably honest, lamenting how she's spent the last 50 years being largely ignored. She said that the invasion of cute, white British boys in the '60s swept all black music off the radio and now that music was left to be covered by drunk old black women like herself.
She was awesome.
She talked about how much she hated New York, even as we were sandwiched in between the Empire State Building in the north and the Flatiron building in the south. Here she is at 19:
Here she is covering The Who at 62:
Afterwards, the girls and I walked from the park in vastly different moods. The sun was down. The night was cool. Someone had just shared their art with us. We dipped down into Union Square Park where there was a gathering of Sikhs and Sikh supporters. Many were in "We Are All Sikhs" shirts. We circulated among them. People were holding up those little plastic battery powered candles. A woman in a turban handed one to Zoe. We then went from there to the Strand bookstore, still open at nearly 10. Terrible day, but a great night.
Anyway, this reminds me that what we do in life--what we should do, perhaps--is run deep grooves. I think of Betty LaVette singing and recording year after year, never quite breaking through, but unable to stop practicing her art. I didn't grow up like this. I grew up thinking you should abandon what doesn't work out, even if you love it, even if you feel like you can't live without it--you have to let it go and move on. I thought about this a lot on our long walk home.
Bettye covering Pink Floyd at 64: