If Bob Dylan’s constant tinkering and rearranging of his canon during live performances have proved anything, it’s that his songs, filled with ambiguity and subtext, are living, breathing compositions open to interpretation. This is what most artists who cover the legendary singer-songwriter seem to forget. Too often musicians cover Dylan with such slavish devotion to the original recordings, their versions veer toward reverent karaoke.
Thankfully, Bettye LaVette is around to show us how it should be done. The veteran soul/blues vocalist recently released her superb take on a collection of vintage and obscure Dylan songs, “Things Have Changed.” LaVette fearlessly reinvents Dylan’s work while making it completely her own.
When undertaking the project, the 72-year-old contemporary of the Nobel Prize winner had a unique perspective on the material. Unlike so many other artists who cover the songs, LaVette had never heard any of them before.
“I really don’t know Bob’s music,” LaVette, who plays City Winery Thursday, says with a laugh via phone. “I came to them with a blank slate. Since I don’t know Dylan’s catalog, the songs mean something different to me than they do to you or any real Dylan fan. I approached them differently because I have no association with them. When I read the words, I just thought about what they meant to me and sang them that way. If you’ve never heard them before, they are brand new.”
The great vocalist, who had previously recorded three Dylan songs, left the bulk of the song selection to her husband, Kevin Kiley, and got down to work with producer Steve Jordan to bring the fiery, bluesy set to life. Included are classics like “It Ain’t Me Babe” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’” as well as some of Dylan’s deep tracks, including “Political World” (from “Oh Mercy”), featuring Keith Richards, and “Emotionally Yours” (from “Empire Burlesque”).
“I wasn’t going to do the more popular songs but the record company insisted, so I made them unrecognizable to myself. I needed to explore them fully and turn them into mine. I wanted the songs to be completely different than the way they’ve been presented before. Each one spoke to me for a different reason,” LaVette says.
The singer speaks with the same spirit and down-to-earth magnetism she brings to her music, punctuating the conversation with anecdotes and good humor. She says once she read the lyrics to the songs, she had a complete understanding of how she would approach each one.
“With ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’ and ‘It Ain’t Me Babe,’ I told Steve Jordan, ‘We need to do these like James Brown would have in the ’60s. I was so grateful to have a black producer because I’d rather have someone who grew up with James Brown instead of Bob Dylan.
“We grew up listening to black radio, so we approached the songs in ways that were not applied to his work yet. Usually, when blacks have done Dylan, they’ve taken the gospel influences from it, but I knew we had to do them the Bettye LaVette way.”
When considering if she had any worries about tweaking the lyrics to fit her musical persona, she offers up a big laugh. “Have you seen the clothes I wear and how high my heels are? Tell me, can you see me running down the street pushing a wheelbarrow with a guy in it?”
Her new record is all part of LaVette’s remarkable comeback that began in 2003 with the release of “A Woman Like Me” after she had already been making music for nearly 40 years. Over the past 15 years, she has delivered a string of powerful blues records while working with various artists across genres and touring relentlessly. It has allowed her to reach new generations of fans.
“There’s no way I ever saw this coming,” she says. “When you’re 55 or 65 you can’t envision what happened actually happening. But I was prepared. My manager always told me if I learned a lot of different songs from different genres, I could work until I die. I knew I might never become this huge star, but I could work big enough places and reach wide audiences.”
She pauses briefly and continues. “At first, I really didn’t want to do what he said. I definitely didn’t want to learn songs from Frank Sinatra or Anita O’ Day. I thought, ‘You just want me to become an old woman acting white.’ That wasn’t something that interested me. But I learned a lot of things, so let me tell you the secrets: Learn how to dress well, learn how to talk well, and choose up.”
She hesitates once again before adding the kicker. “Don’t choose the bass player; choose the manager. Remember those things and anything can happen.”
That may be her practical advice for a successful career, but LaVette has a keen understanding of the reasons for her artistic success, and she knows what separates her from the thousands of younger vocalists in pop music who rely on covers.
“First, I resent the word ‘cover,’” she says firmly. “You can only cover a recording. I don’t cover songs — I interpret songs. That’s not what a lot of the younger singers are doing. They are trying to sing what they think they feel, but they are feeling what they heard. That’s the difference between covering songs and interpreting.
“I know from experience. When I first started, it was very important for me to holler as loud as Etta James. My manager at the time said, ‘Don’t be someone else. Find out who you are.’”
LaVette lets the words linger in the air. “And, to be honest, I couldn’t figure that out for maybe 15 years or so. I thought I’m fine. I’m cute, and I have a record on the charts. He looked at me and said, ‘You ain’t gonna be cute forever, so figure out who you really are.’”
Now 56 years into her career, LaVette is confident she’s got plenty more music to make, and she’s definitely not afraid of her competition. “I understand what the young singers are doing — they’re hollering really loud, but they don’t scare me at all. I know they are leaving half the song out, usually the most important part. Children don’t scare me even if they can sing loud enough to be heard all the way in New York.”
She’s prepared to keep on recording and playing shows until someone stops her. “I’ll do it for $50. I do it for $50,000. This is all I know how to do. My thought is stay strong, keep showing up, and keep wearing 6-inch heels.”
At City Winery, Boston, May 17 at 8 p.m. Tickets: 25-$40, 617-933-8047, www.citywinery.com/bostonKen Capobianco can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.