Singer and songwriter Beth Hart isn't well-known, but she's been knocking around the trenches of the L.A. music scene for a couple of decades now. She's performed in just about every rock club in Los Angeles, appeared on Ed McMahon's Star Search TV program several times in the early 1990s, been signed to (and dropped by) a major label, and has released several albums of high-quality rock, soul, blues, and roots music. Her "L.A. Song (Out This Town)" became a minor hit after it was used in an episode of Beverly Hills, 90210 back in 2000, rising to number five on the Adult Contemporary charts and, surprisingly, to number one in New Zealand, of all places!
In short, Hart is a music biz veteran and, even more importantly for our purposes here, a talented blueswoman who has gone through her share of both joy and trouble...think Janis Joplin, but with less rock and more soul. Beth Hart is also becoming the "go to gal" for artists looking for the perfect voice for a special song, and over the past few years she's recorded with musicians as diverse as Deep Purple, Les Paul and Neal Schon (of Journey), Slash, and even Belgian jazzman Toots Thielemans. Blues guitarist Joe Bonamassa brought Hart into the studio to sing on his song "No Love On The Street, from his best-selling, chart-topping 2011 album Dust Bowl.
Beth Hart & Joe Bonamassa's Don't Explain
It is Bonamassa that came up with the idea of collaborating with Hart on an album of soul covers, an idea that came to fruition with the release of Don't Explain. Working with long-time producer Kevin Shirley and a band of familiar players that included guitarist Blondie Chaplin, bassist Carmine Rojas, keyboardist Arlan Scheirbaum, and drummer Anton Fig – many of whom also worked with Bonamassa on his 2009 album The Legend of John Henry – Hart and Bonamassa went about the business of picking ten songs out of a universe of great material to choose from.
I'd say they did an admirable job, as Don't Explain not only features a wealth of great songs, but also pulls memorable performances out of singer Hart and guitarist Bonamassa. It's a mark of the man's genius that Bonamassa so readily backs out of the spotlight to allow another artist to shine. Whether it's Beth Hart on Don't Explain, or Glenn Hughes with Black Country Communion, Bonamassa is so confident in his own abilities that he is quite capable of easing into the background and still manage to make a musical statement with the elegance and subtlety of his playing.
Don't Explain kicks off with the smoldering "Sinner's Prayer," a late-1950s Lowell Fulson soul-blues song recorded by Ray Charles back in the day. With Bonamassa's wickedly bluesy recurring riff circling in the background and Scheirbaum's spirited piano-play offering texture, Hart's powerful, sparse vocals light a fire to the tape. She's just as good on the odd-bodkins choice of Tom Waits' "Chocolate Jesus," the singer breathing new life into a vocally difficult track, the band admirably providing the song's carnival atmosphere cacophony as a backdrop for Hart's bluesy, blustery vocals and Bonamassa's haunting fretwork.
Singer/songwriter Bill Withers' "For My Friends" is re-imagined here as a larger-than-life, muscular blues-rocker, with Hart calling upon her inner Robert Plant with a raging performance that echoes the song's soulful roots while still soaring majestically above the band's stomping, stammering, riff-happy instrumentation. Bonamassa's red-hot solo at the three-minute mark is pure 1970s-era blunt-force trauma, and we love it. Don’t Explain slows down a bit here, as Hart takes on the great Billie Holiday with a sultry take on the title song, Hart's jazzy, sensual vocals caressed by the smooth-as-silk strings of the Bovaland Orchestra and a provocative, atmospheric solo courtesy Mr. Joe B.
I'd Rather Go Blind
There's more than a little of R&B great Etta James in Beth Hart's vocal styling and performance, and she pays homage to the singer on Don't Explain with a pair of well-chosen James' covers. The first, a hauntingly beautiful reading of "I'd Rather Go Blind" matches James note-for-note with emotional strength and passion. Hart's vocals wrap around the lyrics like they were written just for her, and she brings a lifetime of heartbreak to her powerful performance as Bonamassa provides a wonderfully-nuanced instrumental canvas on which Hart paints her masterpiece. James' classic "Something's Got A Hold On Me" is equally strong, an up-tempo R&B rave-up with crescendos of instrumentation and a foot-shuffling, soul-stirring performance that threatens to slide off the turntable and dance across your living room floor!
Delaney Bramlett's "Well, Well" is the lone duet between Hart and Bonamassa on Don't Explain, the song a country-flavored Southern soul stomp taken from the 1972 Delaney & Bonnie album D&B Together, which included guest appearances from Eric Clapton and Duane Allman. Hart and Bonamassa do an admirable job here, Hart particularly delivering a solid approximation of Bonnie Bramlett's raucous blue-eyed soul vocals. Bonamassa, for his part, does a fine job of providing the song's Southern-fried framework with his rattletrap guitar jauntily gliding in and out of the sly, spry, shuffling rhythmic background, with Scheirbaum's piano dancing away with reckless aplomb. Bonamassa's solo here displays another side of his skills, lustily blending Allman and Elvin Bishop into a lead that sounds fresh and new while remaining rooted in Macon, Georgia circa 1972.
The Reverend's Bottom Line
Beth Hart and Joe Bonamassa really are a match made in heaven, his peerless guitarplay providing the perfect counterpoint to Hart's powerful, soulful vocals. Don't Explain is a delightful collection of classic soul songs, the performances here reminding you of the originals while providing their warm familiarity with a streetworthy contemporary edge. Hart is an artist who should be receiving much more acclaim than she is, and Bonamassa proves himself a modern renaissance man with guitar playing that is strong though subtle, fluid and yet challenging, and unlike anything we've heard from the artist previously. Buy this one for Joe, and be prepared to fall in love with Beth. (J&R Adventures, released September 27, 2011)
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