Saturday, October 1, 2011
Beth Hart & Joe Bonamassa - Don't Explain - Instant Classic
The death of the record business has created one thing that is wonderful, and that is the possibility of established acts combining to make great music without the encumbrances that kept artists from working together at will for so many years. This has availed Joe Bonamassa, a solo superstar in his own right, to partner up first with the legendary Voice of Rock, Glenn Hughes to form Black Country Communion in 2010, and now to join forces with Beth Hart to record Don't Explain, an outstanding set of re-worked R&B classics. These synergistic combinations are a tremendous boon to artists and audiences alike.
In early 2010, the guitarist caught a Beth Hart show in London. "It was killer," says Bonamassa - and suggested they do a project together.
Thankfully the creative team of producer Shirley, Hart, and Bonamassa selected a set of standards, but avoided the obvious maneuver of choosing lowest common denominator super hits, and went with mostly deep catalog classics by stalwarts such as Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Tom Waits, Billie Holiday, Bill Withers, and Melody Gardot.
Beth Hart is no shrinking violet - she manages to own these tunes with a sultry style that harkens to a great many soul divas, but her stamp is indelible. One problem I always had with most soul records was the fact that once you got past the hits, there often was little left to excite the listener. This bunch has avoided that brilliantly, and the album has no filler, it's all prime cuts, and Hart turns in incredible performances from beginning to end.
As a guitar enthusiast, I was always a bit disappointed by the lack of six string excitement in the rhythm & blues field (especially on records by female singers) - rest assured that this is the record we always wanted to hear coming out of the American South, one filled to the brim with the influence of Gibson and Fender. One listen to Bill Wither's For My Friends and you'll be convinced. Bonamassa infuses the tune with a thick, clavinet tinged bit of riffery that lands the smooth California soul somewhere in the realm of Kossoff, Rodgers, and Free. Hart throws in loads of non-lyrical bits and pieces throughout the tune that will have fans of great singer/shouters smiling from ear to ear.
Sinners Prayer gets quite an update - the original take, by Ray Charles and BB King, is driven by Charles' piano, with King supplying largely stock licks. Bonamassa wisely chose a different route by introducing a slide guitar signature lick that wraps the listener engagingly around Hart's plea for compassion and forgiveness. As always, Bonamassa's long standing studio band of bassist Carmine Rojas, drummer Anton Fig, keyboardist Arlan Scheirbaum, and multi-instrumentalist Blondie Chaplin is rock solid, supplying a perfect platform from which to launch the incendiary performances of the two main attractions.
Covering Melody Gardot is a pretty ballsy act for a female singer, and Beth Hart knocks Your Heart Is As Black As Night out of the park by taking it down a path that suggests she's spent some time with a Nina Simone record, or two. Producer Shirley does a great job on this with some great subtle strings that peak around corners and wrap themselves around the arrangement. Bonamassa solos with tone, taste and sweet, sweet melody. It gets not much tastier than this, really.
I thought I'd rather go deaf than hear yet another version of Etta James' I'd Rather Go Blind, but again I'm pleasantly surprised to find that Shirley's inspired pairing comes through with a tasteful reading that reminds exactly why we have always loved this number. Bassist Carmine Rojas shines on this number, reminding me of the legendary Jerry Jemmott - if you're unaware, look him up. Jemmott played with most of the artists being covered here, and Rojas's tasty playing tips the hat to the fellow known as 'The Groovemaster.'
Prepare to lose your heart to Beth Hart when you hear her treatment of I'll Take Care Of You, a song the singer says originally had her scrambling to find the pocket:
“At first, I couldn’t find the pocket, anyplace to rest my voice. The more I listened, though, I really liked how the song’s got a dual personality, a blend of confidence and broken spirit,” she says. “I loved the humanness of it, how you can experience opposite feelings at the same time. And the melody is gorgeous.”
Indeed it is, and when Hart finally found her groove, she managed to transcend any previously recorded version of this spiritual tale of promise and pain. Her melodic healing will have you feeling better in no time, and you'll be glad she found the heart of this great song. Her vocal chops are astounding, but her delivery is so natural and unforced that only occasionally will you realize the depth of her incredible skills. Just when you think it's over, Anton Fig unleashes a tremendous bit of stick work that rings in Bonamassa's best solo on the record, one that sees the ghost of Gary Moore smiling with love in the shadows.
The pair end the album with a soulful take on Aretha Franklin's Ain't No Way, and it is a lovely way to ring out a wonderful record. A sensitive rendering that has Joe B supplying some very tasteful swells, and bends that harken back to Santos & Johnny's Sleep Walk via Jeff Beck. He plays some astoundingly cool and subtle licks under, over, and around Hart's beautiful vocal. A truly inspired finish.
Soul records for me always suffered from a certain few things, as I stated earlier - generally not enough guitar fire power, and an absence of depth of material. Beth Hart and Joe Bonamassa, along with Kevin Shirley and their powerful backing band have done an amazing job of delivering a truly stunning set of soul classics with all the emotion, passion, and fiery performances anyone could ask for. Did I mention that they recorded this in four days? Amazing.