Bettye Lavette’s New Album Of Dylan Covers Is A Triumph

I always say you almost can’t go wrong covering a Bob Dylan song because at the very least you’re giving the listeners a well-written lyric to appreciate. But to make it really good you need to bring something new to the table and make those lyrics convince from a fresh perspective, not an easy task, but I think Bettye Lavette has succeeded wonderfully with her new album Things Have Changed.

At first glance Lavette would not be an obvious candidate to make a convincing and entertaining album of Dylan covers, but this woman has had a career that surprised a lot of people, and I guess she’s still surprising us. The 72-year-old Soul and Blues singer recorded a couple of minor hits as a 16-year-old in 1962, but didn’t really get much recognition until her 2005 album I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise hit all the best-of lists that year. She is a survivor with a capital S.

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Lavette’s voice brings the authority of experience to these songs, giving the brilliant lyrics an emotional punch that Dylan’s own vocals can sometimes lack. She has wisely chosen mostly post-1980 album tracks from Dylan’s catalogue and so is able to avoid the preconceptions and comparisons that come with covering more familiar material. The two most famous songs she covers are “It Ain’t Me Babe” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’”, and she completely reworks both of those into old-fashioned R&B groovers.

Other highlights include the old Dylan-Joan Baez duet “Mama You Been On My Mind”, which Lavette transforms from a love song into a moving tribute to her own Mom, and “Do Right To Me Baby”, originally on Slow Train Coming, which she ignites into some real kick-ass Southern Rock. The album is deftly produced by Steve Jordan, who is perhaps most famous for his production/drumming with Keith Richards and the John Mayer Trio. He brings perfect tasteful touch to the wide range of styles and moods on the album.

My favorite number is her take on the song “Things Have Changed”, Dylan’s 2005 single which I think ranks up there with the best songs he ever wrote, such a catchy chorus and wickedly great lyrics. When Bettye Lavette sings “people are crazy, times are strange” you can feel she has bought completely into Dylan’s words and made them her own, which is the ultimate goal of any cover tune. I highly recommend this fine album.


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