Called “one of the greatest of all soul singers” by The New York Times, Bettye LaVette brings her signature sound to St. Johnsbury Academy’s Fuller Hall on Friday. “The Great Lady of Soul,” as she’s known, performs with her band following a solo opening set by legendary blues and jazz guitarist James Blood Ulmer.
LaVette, who is still as vital as ever at age 72, is touring in support of a new album entirely dedicated to her versions of Bob Dylan songs, “Things Have Changed,” which was released in March. Delivering a raw, stripped-down rhythm & blues sound, LaVette is known for her singular interpretations of songs by other artists, on which she has been putting her signature stamp since cutting her first album at age 16.
“Things Have Changed” continues LaVette’s triumphant return to prominence as a distinctive interpreter of songs in rock and folk idioms. This has included her 2005 album, “I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise” (consisting of songs written by women, from Fiona Apple to Dolly Parton), and 2010’s Grammy-nominated “Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook,” which included classics by such bands as the Rolling Stones, the Animals and Pink Floyd.
“Things Have Changed” is a follow-up to her 2015 album, “Worthy,” which included covers of lesser-known songs by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Dylan, among others. Her first set entirely devoted to one songwriter, the album “daringly reshapes the Dylan legend,” according to Rolling Stone, which called it “more personal and reflective of her wicked ways, sly humor and battle-tested wisdom than any she’s made.”
The album “shows LaVette at the top of her game, as a superb reader of lyrics and a bold stylist unafraid to rework some well-known tunes and some obscure but worthy ones that needed her touch to come alive fully,” said PopMatters.
“With ‘Things Have Changed,’ LaVette hasn’t just joined the ranks of first-rate Dylan interpreters, female and male, she’s taken her place as leader of the pack.”
Despite some minor hits early in her career, it took nearly half a century for LaVette to experience the acclaim that finally came in the early 2000s. (LaVette’s ups and downs are bluntly described in her 2012 autobiography, “A Woman Like Me.”) Since then, she has won the W.C. Handy Award for comeback blues album of the year, and has garnered two Grammy nominations.
Highlights of her distinguished career have also included singing at President Barack Obama’s first inauguration celebration at the Lincoln Memorial in 2009 — a stunning version of the Sam Cooke song, “A Change is Gonna Come,” performed with Jon Bon Jovi — and a standout performance of The Who’s “Love, Reign o’er Me” at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2008.
Friday’s show marks LaVette’s first Vermont performance since a late-2015 show at Spruce Peak Performing Arts Center in Stowe, and a return to St. Johnsbury, where she performed in early 2011. And LaVette’s performance at Burlington’s Waterfront Park during the two-weeklong 2009 celebration of Lake Champlain was a highlight of the star-studded Burlington International Waterfront Festival.
While her albums in the recent past are truly stellar, LaVette is best experienced live, when listeners can bear witness to her astounding stage presence. “This grande dame of soul has so much color, texture and dimension to her voice,” said Seven Days in a review of the Waterfront Park show, “qualities that can’t possibly be captured fully on a recording.”
Or, as The New York Times described a 2015 show at New York’s Café Carlyle: “By the end of the evening, the ashes of Ms. LaVette’s hard life had reignited, and there was fire in the air.”
Ulmer, 78, is a singular New York blues and jazz guitarist who “has left his mark on an extraordinarily wide range of music, including freewheeling funk, cutting-edge rock and avant-garde jazz,” according to the Washington Post. Rolling Stone called him “the most original guitarist since Jimi Hendrix,” while the Detroit Free Press dubbed him “a wildly original guitar hero.”
Long considered an innovator and iconoclast as jazz instrumentalist, Ulmer delved into blues late in his career at the suggestion of guitarist Vernon Reid (Living Colour).
“Ulmer sings and plays,” said the Miami New Times, “and his voice is soulful, rich and ragged, with shades of Muddy Waters or Howling Wolf.”
“Despite his restless creativity and cross-genre excursions,” added the Washington Post, “Ulmer remains a bluesman at heart — a guitarist drawn to elemental rhythms, drones and riffs; a singer equipped with a deep, resonating, Delta-evoking baritone.”