“You’re surrounded by love,” came a shout from the audience when she slipped down the central aisle, encircled by supporters, wrapped in a loose white gown, at the beginning of the concert…
It was like a betrothment. Maybe we were her acolytes. And the Hammersmith Eventim Apollo was the church of holy appreciation. So — after hugging family members along the way — she arrived onto stage to announce it was wonderful to return (she made a special appearance at Joe Bonamassa’s concert in 2015) and thanked the audience for “So many hugs and kisses.”
And the participation of the crowd was almost immediate when she launched into “Waterfalls” with those Navajo yelps of pain, expressive word-play and lots of bustling rhythms. It was clear from the start this would be a show that centered on the quality of musicianship, and also would become an intimate evening in the company of one of the best-loved blues artists on the planet, the platinum-selling, Grammy nominated, American singer/songwriter BETH HART.
Beth has a voice that is often compared, justifiably, with that of Janis Joplin. It seems she has endured the same type of wounds — so her vocal power arrives vibrationally, as an amalgam of sapwood sawdust and lemon-syrup.
Her songs have been tempered by struggle, pain and, ultimately, naivety. Though her undoubted prowess comes from a life in music… a life that has seen damage & self-contempt but, always, always, the constant hand of sustaining love. So Beth doesn’t just wear her heart on her sleeve… she opens her chest and she takes it out it. There it sits, on the piano, and her heart throbs in pain. That is why her songs seem so wounded.
Tom (Lilly) plays bass as if he’s never been away. “He had to learn forty songs in four weeks,” Beth tells the crowd. And Jon (Nichols) plays the type of guitar solos that open-up the skies to allow rainbows to fall in. While the magic percussionist Bill (Ransom) has the skill and ability of a drummer who was probably born inside a djembe on a rainy day.
Sat at the piano, Beth had bright eyes and tears on her cheeks for much of the show: “Chocolate Jesus” the “so naughty” cover of the Tom Waits number reminded her of the days when she didn’t go to church. This number had Jon’s voodoo guitar all over it, and was delivered with a cabaret style piano. It was followed by the scandalous and upbeat “Bad Woman Blues” which was delivered after the blatant claim: “I’m a self-centred mother****”.
Then, as if to demonstrate her own words, Beth managed to press-gang the band into covering the Brook Benton number “I’ll Take Care of You” (originally recorded by Bobby Bland in 1959). This was followed by the self-discriminatory “As Good As It Gets” with those lines: “I ain’t got pride like a beauty queen / Can’t even walk a straight line...” This song fizzed-open like a bottle of champagne dislodged on a dusty shelf. Perhaps a recognition of the consequences of her less wise decisions in life.
Then we came to “War in My Mind” from her most recent (ninth) solo studio album which seemed to be about mining for diamonds in a cavern of despair.
Some of her songs flustered and vibrated, like prayer flags on lonely hills. Others were more resistant (though no-less unguarded) such as “Sugar Shack” before which she told the London audience that her husband Scott (Guetzkow) — who stood in the wings — did not like her to relate the story of the song’s beginning, “I imagined I was a prostitute in New Orleans and I waited in hope to see my favorite trick.” Hence the line: “You got me crawling across the floor...” Scott — who acts as her Tour Manager as well as soul-mate and confidante — didn’t disapprove at the time, though he didn’t allow her a second encore later. (Was that the cost?) Such is his influence and her happy acquiescence.
One lesson we learned during this emotional journey around Beth’s trembling heart was not to be ashamed of the truth. So her gentle ode to sister Susan (present in the audience) “Sister Dear” was a cheerful appreciation of a sibling who once wrote lyrics for her (until a fight meant that Beth had to write her own), while the song about the woman who “took” away her dad “Tell Her You Belong to Me” possibly brought him back into her life.
Then we arrived at the “best bit” of the show when Tom brought out his upright bass to support Beth on spotlit piano, for the soft sway of “Without Words in the Way” — a prayer without invocation — then drummer Bill brought out his cajón and Jon sat alongside with Spanish guitar for an acoustic potpourri that included a spectacular and rhythmic interpretation of “Baby Shot Me Down” — the vindictive ditty about payback from the “Fire On The Floor” album (2016) and, after that, a superlative version of the beautiful “Spanish Lullabies” from the latest disc “War In My Mind” which included those words “Now that I’m grown [my heart is] harder than stone…” After this, and proving yet again that she often gets her own way (not always a good thing) she cajoled the others into attempting (and pulling off, with neat aplomb) the Etta James cover “I’d Rather Go Blind” a number that was included on the Hart/Bonamassa album “Don’t Explain.”
Songs like these come from a life that has been impacted by damage, that’s true. But Beth’s life has also been redeemed by love. And that was the main message of the show. At Hammersmith, she brought us complex, fragile, and characterful palpitations…
This was an out-flowing of unrestrained love… A love that can finally fly free.
Words: @neilmach 2020 ©
Main Image: Dubbel Xposure Photography