Beth Hart’s Gritty, Gutsy Take on the Blues

John Morthland

By John Morthland

on 06.13.13 in Spotlights

Beth Hart is shaping up as the kind of promising newcomer who could make a big splash on the blues and soul circuit — if someone who made her first album two decades ago can be described as a “promising newcomer.” And that’s just one of several “if’s” currently circling her career: Does she even want to sing blues and soul? Can she deliver worthy material in that vein? Does she have the self-discipline necessary? One thing is certain: This L.A. woman has one helluva voice, a wrenching, powerful instrument full of vibrato, purrs and rasps.

Hart has, in recent months, released both Bang Bang Boom Boom, her eighth solo album, and Seesaw, her second collaboration with blues-guitar wunderkind Joe Bonamassa. The former presents her as a sort of modern cabaret or nightclub singer, performing her own songs with a fair amount of blues and gospel in her phrasing; on the latter, she revives soul and related songs from the past.

She’d begun singing in high school, on the South Central L.A. club circuit, where blues and soul prevailed. Following her national victory on Star Search, the American Idol/The Voice forerunner that provided Ed McMahon pocket cash when he wasn’t fronting for Johnny Carson, she released Immortal, her 1996 debut album, on an Atlantic Records imprint. That was followed three years later by Screamin’ for My Supper, which yielded the Adult Contemporary Top 5 hit “L.A. Song (Out of This Town).” About that time, she disappeared in a mountain of drugs and an ocean of booze that scotched her major-label deal. Since cleaning up, she’s released half a dozen albums, some only overseas, some on various American labels; she also played Janis Joplin in the off-Broadway musical Love, Janis, based on that tumultuous singer’s letters home to her family in Port Arthur, Texas, during her ’70s heyday. (Hart is constantly compared to Joplin as a singer, of course.) But she started gaining real traction in America in 2011, when she and Bonamassa, who’d crossed paths on European tours, released Don’t Explain, their first collection of soul remakes that hit No. 2 on Billboard’s blues charts.

Actually, the Bonamassa collaborations seem to showcase Hart much better than her solo work. There’s a few reasons for this: For starters, her solo work remains more pop than blues or soul, and the new one is a mixed bag of songs. The opening “Baddest Blues” is probably the bluesiest thing on the disc, but it’s closer to a stylized, Billie Holiday pop song personalized into bluesy territory. Hart shows restraint as she builds the song in a way that emphasizes the depth of the song and her feeling. The title song that follows might be the best thing on the album, a seeming throwaway with a casually devastating matter-of-factness about her attraction to a dangerous lover.

But after those first two, the entire album seems to fade into a hazy, nebulous collection of fairly pedestrian songs. Hart is better off digging up and singing obscure blues and soul songs that her audience wouldn’t recognize but that would still express her outlook. Seesaw certainly seconds that emotion. Take “I Love you More Than You’ll Ever Know,” a song Al Kooper wrote for the first Blood, Sweat and Tears album (1968) that Donny Hathaway turned into a soul hit in 1972. The lyrics are constructed to be declaimed, spoken and sung, with all kinds of room in the song for seemingly spontaneous soul interjections; in short, it’s almost impossible to oversing, and this version is indeed gorgeous.

The opening “Them There Eyes” (one of two songs associated with Billie Holiday) provides another explanation for why Hart sounds so much better here than on her own album. The tune kicks in with some madly swinging wham-bam horn parts, and she fits herself right into the pocket instead of walking all over it as she often does with her own band. Indeed, the only oversung moment comes with Ike and Tina Turner’s “Nutbush City Limits,” and even that seems passable given how badly Tina oversang the original. Most impressively of all, she humbly acquits herself with empathy and anguish on “Strange Fruit,” the Holiday gem that I’d previously thought no white woman should ever try to sing.

The American version of Bang Bang Boom Boom contains the live track of Hart and Jeff Beck performing her heroine Etta James’s “I’d Rather Go Blind” as part of the tribute to Buddy Guy at last year’s Kennedy Center Honors presentations. Beck has scads of tricks and licks he can haul out to play off her dominating voice, and she knows it. Rather than running astray, she exercises complete control over her vocal, making her point without clubbing anyone over the head with it. The end result is stunning.