Gig review: BETH HART/Colin James – Royal Festival Hall, London, 23 November 2016

BETH HART/Colin James – Royal Festival Hall, London, 23 November 2016

It isn’t just her remarkable voice and emotive songs, let alone her vivacious stage presence that marks Beth Hart out as special, it’s much more than that. She’s a force of nature and a previously troubled soul who has dragged her self up by the bootstraps to channel all her experiences – both good and bad – into a catalogue of songs that range from the deeply autobiographical to imagined narratives, both well suited to her marvellous phrasing ability.

Beth Hart may be old school in terms of her addictions, but right now her star is rising. She bravely tries to retain an intimacy with her audience at the vast Royal Festival Hall by making her stage entrance via the stalls.  She encourages her audience to become actively involved in the show through call and response moments and even cajoles them to dance, and for the most part they dutifully comply.

BETH HART – Royal Festival Hall, London, 23 November 2016

Judging by the cries of ‘we love you Beth’ and further whoops of encouragement, she’s clearly playing to a committed crowd. On her way to the stage she responds by embracing people at the front, offering the occasional kiss and points to friends real or imagined in the gods.

The Las Vegas style entrance is almost blemished by a radio mic that occasionally cuts out and the fact she had to clamber on stage when no apparent entrance presents itself.

No matter, she opens with the whispered intimacy of ‘Don’t Explain’ which sets the thematic strand for a set in which she’s strongest in either solo confessional or big ballad mode.

Her band is more functional than inspired, with power-house drummer Bill Samson almost redundant in many of the arrangements, while guitarist Jon Nichols sticks rigidly to his one consistent tone. But they are versatile and in the presence of Beth Hart’s spontaneity they need to be.

She gets jazzy on ‘If I Tell You I Love You’ and seems vibed up and ready to rock, on ‘Can’t Let Go’, while in the context of her more weightier material, ‘Bang Bang Boom Boom’ sounds like a dutiful filler.

BETH HART – Royal Festival Hall, London, 23 November 2016

It’s with the stuttering piano intro to ‘Love Is A Lie’ that she really kicks into overdrive, and it makes you wonder why she doesn’t play more material from the new album. She soars on the hook and pours all her emotion into the defining line of a highlight that encompasses her full vocal range and physical prowess, as she launches herself into the song.

She frequently dominates her piano, towering over it as if impatient get to the next song. She then she takes great delight in stalking the stage and engaging the crowd stage right, before sitting at the lip of the stage while never once breaking her essential connection with the crowd.

She adds some breathy phrasing on ‘I’ll Take Care Of’ before Jon Nichols’s most meaningful solo of the night. She’s almost in honky-tonk mode when she adds some scat singing on ‘Trouble’ and playfully gets the crowd to cuss along with her on another call and response sequence.

Suitably relaxed, she then slips into the Dylan style rhyming wordplay of ‘Fatman’, which she ironically dedicates to president elect Donald Trump. One of the best songs on her new ‘Fire On The Floor’ album, it’s even better live as it builds up its momentum on the back of her tongue twisting rhymes.

BETH HART – Royal Festival Hall, London, 23 November 2016

‘St. Teresa’ brings her sharply back to confessional mode and she extends her vibrato beautifully on the show-stopping ballad ‘Good Day To Cry’. She then leans into the heartfelt ‘Sister Heroine’ – a deeply moving song about her late sister – and finishes the confessional segment with her US hit ‘Leave The Light On’, which speak volumes about the song writer.

Tonight, Beth is at her best when she’s focussed on her piano and voice alone, totally lost in the song and teasing out every last nuance of her lyrical reflections.

BETH HART – Royal Festival Hall, London, 23 November 2016

She returns to that stripped down mode for 2 of the 4 song encore, sandwiched between the huge ‘Fire On The Floor’ and the climactic cover of ‘ I’d Rather Go Blind’, which surely would have made Etta James smile.

Job done, crowd happy and tour finished. Here’s to the next one.

Colin James – Royal Festival Hall, London, 23 November 2016

Canadian blues/rocker Colin James provides the perfect foil for Beth with a predominantly acoustic duo set, which comprises moments of fine interplay and well chosen covers.

He opens with Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘Ridin’ In The Moonlight’ and explores a spine tingling version of Van Morrison’s ‘Into The Mystic’, before revealing his own songwriting prowess on the undulating groove of ‘Freedom’.

He tell us it’s the first time he’s been in the UK since the early 90′s, it’s good to have him back.

Review by Pete Feenstra
Photos by Mark Hughes at MHP Studios

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