Beth Hart has certainly established a large and loyal following in the UK, reward for the magnetic Californian’s intensive touring over here. Way back in 2008, on an early assignment for GRTR!, I saw her at a tiny club, the Fly off Oxford Street, but these days she plays the capital’s prestige venues – with what I still consider the Hammersmith Odeon a more rock’n’roll venue than her last two appearances at the respective Royal Halls, the Festival and the Albert.
As on the previous tour support came from Kris Barras, in the form of an acoustic duo with Josiah J Manning, usually his keyboard player and whose harmonies effectively dovetailed with Kris’s agreeably raspy vocals. As an increasing admirer of this rising star, I learned from my mistake last time out and a pre-show dinner was done and dusted in good time.
Opener ‘Heart on Your Sleeve’ had an almost bluegrass feel while rockers ‘What You Get’ and ‘Vegas Son’ featured some impressive finger picking and were adapted well to the acoustic format, which brought out the beauty of ‘Rain’.
Best of all though was a slide guitar intro leading into a cover of ‘Midnight Rider’, which was a new departure for him but really worked. His best known song ‘Hail Mary’ – with the odd person singing along in the crowd- ended a set that was on the short side at 30 minutes but I was not the only one left hoping to see a lot more of him this year, preferably in electric format.
As stage time for Beth Hart loomed, those in the know swivelled their recently refurbished seats to turn towards the back of the theatre rather than the stage. Wearing a cream pinstriped dress, she made her entrance from the rear in almost cabaret fashion, glad handing numerous fans and admirers while singing opener ‘There In Your Heart’ before a sultry, jazzy workout in ‘Close To My Fire’.
‘Waterfalls’ was a rare reminder of the earlier Beth Hart, in the mode of angsty late nineties alt-rockers like Alanis Morrisette or Meredith Brooks, before she took to piano for a string of numbers including a Tom Waits cover in ‘Chocolate Jesus’, and one of my favourites in a doubtless autobiographical ‘Bad Woman Blues’, with a catchy hook.
On ‘I’ll Take Care Of You’ she traded instrumental passages with guitarist John Nichols, one of the few occasions her very well disciplined three piece band were given reign to stretch out. ‘Good As It Gets’ is an evergreen favourite that I recall from that show in 2008 while she forsook the piano for a raunchy ‘Sugar Shack’. I may be in a minority but I was rather hoping there would be more moments like that in the set.
By any standards, she has one of the best blues or soul voices in the business, but what sets her apart, especially on the darker material, is the way that voice lives out some very personal and emotional lyrics, of which the title track of her last album ‘War In My Mind’ was a prime example.
This has always made her a dangerous and edgy performer, but over the past couple of tours she seems to have found greater peace and contentment. Indeed as she gushed over her new found happiness there were not one but three confessional songs dedicated to respective closest family members in ‘Tell Her You Belong to Me’, ‘Sister Dear’, and ‘Mama This One’s For You’.
Around this point in the show, her band were given a rest for an extended period before Tom Lilly accompanied her on an enormous looking upright bass for ‘Without Words In The Way’ while ‘Baby Shot Me Down’ had a late night jazzy feel and then the whole band perched at the front of the stage for a couple of numbers including ‘Spanish Lullabies’ with guitar to match from John.
Beth may be in a better place these days but the band members still need to be on their guard for her mercurial nature, exemplified when she unilaterally decided that the Etta James standard ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ should be delivered acoustically rather than in electric format – singing quite superbly as it turned out.
She seemed to be increasingly distracted by a supposed curfew, regularly looking at husband Scott in the wings, so there was time for just a solitary encore – another solo confessional at the piano in ‘Woman Down’.
I did think the pacing of the show was a little odd, getting more stripped back as it went on, with the more storming rockers that might have got this crowd of generally mature years to its feet instead shoehorned into the first part of the set.
Nevertheless you would find few who were not entertained and mesmerised by this gifted and truly unique performer who invites you into her complex world and bears her heart, soul and vulnerability in such a compelling manner.
Review by Andy Nathan
Photos by Paul Clampin
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 26 July.. In the first hour David pays tribute to the blues/rock guitarist Peter Green.
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