Emotionally Yours: Bettye LaVette brought fresh life to the songs of Bob Dylan at Sonic Lunch


Bettye LaVette at Sonic Lunch

Tangled up in blues: Bettye LaVette dug into the soul of Bob Dylan at Sonic Lunch on Thursday. Photo by Christopher Porter.

For anyone who believes in the power of pop music to communicate in a powerful, even transcendent way, the idea of Bettye LaVette singing the songs of Bob Dylan creates some pretty high hopes. On August 9, the Sonic Lunch concert series brought that pairing to downtown Ann Arbor, and the results were just as good as expected.

Local singer Antwaun Stanley and his tight band opened the show with a sharp, energetic set that brought a modern spin to a 1970s soul/funk sound. A couple of terrific covers -- Maze’s “Running Away” and Al Green’s “Simply Beautiful” -- demonstrated his compelling stage presence and showcased his vocal range. 

But the highlight of Stanley’s set was “Where Are We Now?,” a song he wrote with Tyler Duncan and Theo Katzman in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. Something of a modern-day “What’s Going On,” the song drew a huge response from the crowd. “Are we breaking through, or are we breaking down?” Stanley sang. “We’ve got to be the change; we’ve got to preach the change.”

LaVette opened her set with the title song of her recent Dylan album, Things Have Changed. One of the best of Dylan’s latter-day works, it carries a new, ominous impact in the current social climate, and LaVette brought all of that to her performance.

“It’s always wonderful to be close to home,” LaVette commented (she grew up in Detroit). “You know I’ve got this new CD? You know who wrote all the songs, right?”

A few of LaVette’s Dylan interpretations pretty closely followed the original arrangements, although even in these she always managed to find fresh nuances of meaning. She took a funk approach to “Political World,” wrung raw emotion from “Mama, You Been On My Mind,” and brought a harder, almost angry edge to “Ain’t Talkin’.”

Other songs were nearly complete reinventions, and these proved to be some of the most rewarding. LaVette’s interpretive skills particularly shone on “It Ain’t Me, Babe.” Where Dylan’s original can come off as dismissive, almost irritated, Lavette’s version was slower, more thoughtful, and full of regret. “The Times, They Are A-Changin’” may have been the most startling revelation -- a bluesy, emotional take that bore little resemblance to the original.

She commented that emotion was the key element she sought out in choosing her Dylan material, noting that Dylan’s own true feelings can often be a mystery. Of course, that led into a gorgeous rendition of “Emotionally Yours” that she absolutely owned. 

LaVette stuck to the Dylan material throughout the main set, even following the running order of the album, only skipping two songs. At one point she promised those who hoped to hear some older stuff that her next visit to town would fill that bill. 

As on the album, “Going, Going, Gone” provided a fitting close to the main set. She briefly encored with one non-Dylan song, her autobiographical “Before the Money Came (The Battle of Bettye LaVette).” We’re all fortunate that Bettye LaVette is still fighting that good fight.

Things Have Changed
It Ain’t Me, Babe
Political World
Seeing the Real You at Last
Mama, You Been On My Mind
Ain’t Talkin’
The Times, They Are A-Changin’
Emotionally Yours
Do Right to Me Baby
Going, Going, Gone
Before the Money Came (The Battle of Bettye LaVette)

Bob Needham is a freelance writer and the former arts & entertainment editor of The Ann Arbor News and AnnArbor.com.

The free Sonic Lunch concert series continues at 11:30 Thursdays through Aug. 30 at Liberty Plaza, on the corner of Division and East Liberty streets in downtown Ann Arbor.