Bettye LaVette has spent most of her 44 years as a performer as something of a secret among soul aficionados. She’s had minor hits: “My Man — He’s a Loving Man” in the ’60s and “Right in the Middle of Falling in Love” in the early ’80s — but never reached the level of acclaim of Aretha Franklin or Diana Ross. But that may be changing.
On her new album, “I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise” (Anti), produced by Joe Henry, LaVette puts her stamp on a collection of songs by women composers ranging from Sinead O’Connor to Dolly Parton and with stunning results. Her triumphant show Monday night at the Knitting Factory celebrating the album’s release was just as impressive.
LaVette has a classic soul shouter’s voice. She may be from Detroit, but the singers she most closely resembles are Southerners such as James Carr or Otis Redding — powerful yet tender, a little rough around the edges, just as effective celebrating to the heavens as she is damnation and hellfire. If anything, age has burnished her vocals — when she turns Parton’s “Little Sparrow” into a harrowing drama, her pain feels so unvarnished and deep, it causes involuntary shudders and makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. She also turns Fiona Apple’s “Sleep to Dream” (which gives the album its title) into a feisty declaration of independence.
She’s aided by her four-piece band, which provides her with perfectly understated and flinty backup. But the hourlong show ends with LaVette onstage alone, transforming O’Connor’s “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got” into an a cappella spiritual, ending the night looking exultant — her head held high, chin up and eyes closed. Earlier she told the aud, “It’s been good, but it’s never been good like this.” The loving cheers from the audience let her know they felt the same way.