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Wednesday, June 20th, 2007

Bettye LaVette makes a strange, yet bold, move

&The R&B singer enlists an unlikely backing band, and police hassle The Coup's Boots Riley.

By August Brown, Times Staff Writer

BETTYE LAVETTE'S 2005 album "I've Got My Own Hell to Raise" was one of the year's most unlikely and welcome comebacks. It's a teary and raw R&B record of songs written for her by Lucinda Williams and Fiona Apple, among others, and it brought the 61-year-old singer a bit closer to the spotlight that eluded her for much of her decades-long career.

Her follow-up, "The Scene of the Crime," could have proved to be an even stranger move. At the suggestion of her record label, Anti-, LaVette enlisted the Skynyrd-deconstructionist Southern rock group Drive-By Truckers as her backing band, a conceit that seems thrilling in its possibilities but also potentially primed for a mismatch disaster. Both acts love them some whiskey and loose morals, but how would LaVette's singular slow burn work in front of the band responsible for ;Dead, Drunk and Naked?"

As it turns out, tastefully. "I'm 61, there's only so far they could pull me," LaVette said. "But I do move a lot onstage, and I didn't have to lay back."

Despite the Truckers' raucous pedigree, "Scene" is absolutely LaVette's album, full of simmering open space that lets her hard-fought revelations on love and liquor resonate. LaVette has never been afraid to cherry-pick ideas from unlikely genres, and contributions from keyboard vet Spooner Oldham, Willie Nelson and Elton John further prove her point.

If the album has a geographical center, it's in the Muscle Shoals, Ala., studio Fame, where LaVette recorded "Scene" more than 30 years after she cut her album "Child of the Seventies" there, only to have Atlantic Records pass on releasing it. She gets a bit of payback for that on "Before the Money Came (The Ballad of Bettye LaVette)," but she's the first to tell you that she's not as bitter as she might rightfully be about it.

"I'm good now. When I was younger I wasn't," LaVette said with a laugh. "I'm probably the only 60-year-old black woman with a new three-record deal."

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Boots Riley is no friend of police

THERE'S no nice way to say it — it's been a terrible few months for the Coup's Boots Riley. In December, a tour bus crash destroyed practically everything the band owned and roughed up the road crew.

Recently though, San Francisco police may have delivered a more personal blow. Riley says that in the early hours of Memorial Day, he parked his car outside a party in the Dogpatch-Waterfront zone, only to be harassed by cops who said they were looking for a tire thief. Police searched Riley's car, he said, and carefully scrutinized his choice of mints.

"One of the cops finds Altoids in the car, and is yelling at me, asking, 'What pills are these?' I said, 'They're breath mints; they're curiously strong.' "

Riley, whose band had the misfortune of releasing an album showing an exploding World Trade Center shortly before 9/11, is well known in Bay Area activist circles and is no stranger to confrontations with police. He's exploring his legal options with a city watchdog group, the Office of Citizen Complaints, but doesn't expect that this will be the last time something like this happens.

"I've gotten stopped for reckless eyeballing, for staring too hard," Riley said. "These officers think they're Tarzan and this is a jungle, that all the animals need to be tamed."

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