For Bettye LaVette, the last five years have been like a victory lap. After decades of struggle and a long slide into obscurity, LaVette has rebounded with a string of albums establishing her earthy rasp as one of the most distinctive voices in modern-day retro-soul. And her latest album, "Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook" (Anti- Records), looks like the odds-on favorite to win the Grammy Award next month for best contemporary blues album.
Of course, if you suggest such a thing to her, she's liable to lay the smack down on your impertinent backside.
"Oh, child, stop it!" LaVette exclaims in a tone of mock horror over the phone from her home in New Jersey. "If you know anything about my history, you know I've had a lotta sugar turn to [expletive]."
LaVette, who plays Saturday, her 65th birthday, at the Carrboro Arts Center, pauses to cackle before continuing. She's just getting warmed up.
"You know what, I've been telling people I'm actually angry because I'm so hopeful right now, and I never thought I'd hope again. Everything was fine, and I was happy with that. But now I feel like they're leading me on with the little-girl-you-gonna-be-a-star thing all over again - and I'm acting like a fool! It's Christmas, I'm looking in all the windows. It's terrible! I'm just scared. I've been so beaten down, I feel foolish for being so excited. I should know better by now."
Whether or not LaVette takes home that Grammy, she did her part with "Interpretations," which finds her covering songs from the British quadrant of the class-rock canon. A lot of the choices are less-than-obvious for a soul interpreter, including selections by Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Elton John and even (gulp) the Moody Blues; yes, "Nights in White Satin."
But these songs are less covers than reinventions of the sort that English soul man Joe Cocker used to do, with radically reshaped arrangements and phrasing that turn overly familiar songs into something quite different. LaVette hadn't even heard most of these 13 songs before picking them out of 500 proposed by producers.
"Interpretations" completes a nice comeback trilogy alongside 2005's "I've Got My Own Hell to Raise," which featured songs all written by women; and 2007's "The Scene of the Crime," which set the story of LaVette's hardscrabble life to swampy backup by the rock band Drive-By Truckers. Ask her what's next, though, and she claims to have no idea.
"Child, let me finish this one!" she says. "Stop tearing at me so fast! But I don't come up with concepts or anything. My husband and the president of the label came up with this one. I just see if I can fit into them. My husband knows much more than you and me put together. I actually know more about black people and black music since I married him - and he's Irish!
"Do you know, he had the audacity to send an e-mail introduction to tell me he'd heard I was signing with a certain producer," LaVette adds. "He suggested I not do that because I needed somebody better, and it would be a waste of time. I wrote him back: 'Who the hell are you? And unless you're going to pay for me to go into a studio, sit down and shut up.' So that's how we met. He's a record historian and collector. They say he's the ultimate collector, because now he's collected me."
"Interpretations" closes with a powerhouse live rendition of The Who's "Love Reign O'er Me," which was recorded in December 2008 at the Kennedy Center Honors that feted Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey. A month after that, LaVette was one of the stars of Barack Obama's presidential inauguration, dueting with Jon Bon Jovi on Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come." She's still downright effusive about the experience.
"Oh, the Kennedy Center show was absolutely wonderful," LaVette says. "It was like being able to get 20 or 30 years' worth of work done in five minutes, so good on so many levels. To stand up there and do this 'Three Stooges' slap across the audience's face with Barbra Streisand, Aretha and Beyonce all watching was fabulous. The inaugural was the same way. Those were the two biggest things that have happened to me, next to learning how to tapdance."