Album review: BETH HART & JOE BONAMASSA – Seesaw

Beth Hart & Joe Bonamassa

Provogue [Release date: 20.05.13]

One part rock chick and one part soul singer, ‘Seesaw’ finds Beth Hart settling in as an MOR interpretive singer with a nice lines in story telling. She’s both emotive and evocative on some well sourced material, including more songs by Billy Holiday, Etta James, Aretha Franklin and Melody Margot.  The approach is similar to the ‘Don’t Explain’ album, but with a slightly more middle of the road feel that irons out the raw edges and adds production gloss in the pursuit of radio friendly product

‘Seesaw’ mixes soul, blues and big band outings with pristine arrangements. Joe Bonamassa plays an understated but crucial supportive role in tandem with producer Kevin Shirley who incorporates all manner of horns and strings. On the final track ‘Strange Fruit’, he tops everything with an ethereal production wholly in keeping with the song.

There are plenty of highlights as Beth sings with a confidence and breathy presence to make light of her apparent apprehension in tackling some of the material. Once she hits her stride she’s mesmerising. It’s her natural ability to get inside a song that glues the album together and cements her musical relationship with Bonamassa.

She tackles one of the biggest songs first, wringing every lyrical nuance from ‘Them There Eyes’, the song made famous by Billie Holiday. It sets the tone for an album that rigorously sticks to tightly wrapped arrangements and focuses on Beth’s interpretive skills.

She opts for plenty of variety to give her vocals the best possible context in the realms of blues, soul, jazz and she has the range and phrasing to make the songs her own.

And while, ‘Seesaw’ is a collaborative affair with Joe Bonamassa, Beth dominates the set to suggest that she’s only one step away form filling the vacant Amy Winehouse niche.

But there’s a price to pay and a compromise to be made, which is that while Beth’s singing is faultless, and everyone does their job, what’s missing is her natural vivacity. The album successfully prises a coherent whole from a wide ranging choice of material spanning different eras, but the fact that she tops and tails the CD with two songs made famous by Billy Holliday suggests a pitch for the mainstream.

‘Seesaw’ certainly delivers in terms of performance and collaboration on a soul album that pulls the genre in several directions. Beth’s strength lies in the way she inhabits some of the songs with her emotive vibrato and swooping phrases, but ironically it’s only on the rockier ‘Miss Lady’ – a song she sang with a sore throat – that she reaches beyond her comfort zone for the kind of Janis Joplin inspiration Joe associates her with.

Too often ‘Seesaw’ sounds like an exercise in fulfilling a Kevin Shirley idea rather than something she would naturally gravitate towards. ‘Nutbush City Limits’ is played superbly well but adds little to the original. On the other hand her spiky vocal adds presence to ‘Cant Let Go’, with Joe’s slide providing the perfect foil. ‘Close To My Fire’ sticks close to the lascivious feel of the original, swapping deep guitar tones instead of the original electronic minimalist production

Both Al Cooper’s ‘I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know’ and Melody Gardot’s ‘If I Tell You I Love You’ are commercially driven choices, while Al Green’s funky groove ‘Rhymes’ and the moody ‘Sunday Kind Of Love’, are given the Etta James treatment.

Beth Hart is a blues rocker at heart and ‘Seesaw’ is an exercise in moulding her into a crossover artist, as Joe settles for a supporting role.  Given her career trajectory from teen star and blues rocker to confessional singer song-writer, it’s the next logical step. But Beth Hart is far form being a one dimensional artist, and if her natural inclinations are currently being subsumed in the push for commercial success, you can’t help but think that the critical reception to this album will almost certainly determine how long that will last. **** (4/5)

Review by Pete Feenstra

David Randall presents a weekly show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio, Sundays at 22:00 BST (GMT+1, repeated on Mondays and Fridays), when he invites listeners to ‘Assume The Position’. This show was first broadcast on 30 August 2020.

UK Blues Broadcaster of the Year (2020) Pete Feenstra presents his weekly Rock & Blues Show on Tuesday at 19:00 ( BST, GMT+1) as part of a five hour blues rock marathon “Tuesday is Bluesday at GRTR!”. The show is repeated on Wednesdays at 22:00, Fridays at 20:00). This show was first broadcast 8 September 2020.

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