Seldom has a television performance dropped enough jaws to set a new recording project in motion as deftly as Bettye LaVette's appearance did at the Kennedy Center Honors in December 2008.
There, as part of a celebration of The Who, the veteran soul music stylist performed the Quadrophenia anthem Love Reign O'er Me not as a charge of rock 'n' roll bravado, but as a smoky, after-hours torch song. That Who headmasters Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey were among those in the audience who were floored by the regal but subtle command of her singing only added to the drama.
One can only imagine how the marketing decisions fell after that. But now we have Interpretations: The British Rock Songbook, in which LaVette adds her sagely soulful vocals to reshape a dozen British hits of varying familiarity from the '60s and '70s.
Some transform into the tent-revival soul that LaVette awards to The Beatles' The Word. Others are more ruminative and reflective, drawing upon blues and late-night soul that befit the songs' darker cast. Among them is a plaintively orchestral take of Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here, which transforms its opening line ("So you think you can tell") from a doubtful confession into a pointed accusation.
Many of the delights in Interpretations are triggered by the song selection. The two most familiar entries — Elton John's Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me and The Moody Blues' Nights in White Satin — work mostly because LaVette effectively breaks down arrangements ingrained in psyches by decades of rock-radio exposure. But the real treasures surface when LaVette and co-producers Rob Mathes and Michael Stevens dig deeper.
Let's start with a thoroughly underappreciated Rolling Stones gem, 1968's Salt of the Earth. Despite a few lyrical updates (a reference to polio gets replaced by HIV, for instance), the song remains a soul crusade of honor during hard times and self-doubt.
There also are solo tunes by three of the four former Beatles (curiously, John Lennon is the omission) highlighted by a retelling of George Harrison's Isn't It a Pity as a pensive plea of desperation.
But outside of the storied Lincoln Center performance of Love Reign O'er Me, which closes the album, Interpretations hits its broadest bull's-eye with its biggest obscurity, the autumnal Traffic lament No Time to Live. By sticking to the song's inherent bittersweet melody and the vocal resignation originally applied by a young Steve Winwood, LaVette creates a beautiful portrait of studied, soulful mourning.
The songs might have come from across the pond, but Interpretations is all LaVette. It's a thoroughly Americanized blast of soul music testimony both earthy and ageless.