Saturday, October 1, 2011

Beth Hart & Joe Bonamassa - Don't Explain - Instant Classic

Kevin Shirley has become the Alchemist of Rock and Roll. His not so secret ingredient is super-guitarist Joe Bonamassa, and Shirley has once again created magic by combining the talents of his ace in the hole, blues rock superstar with chanteuse Beth Hart to make Don't Explain, the best old school rhythm & blues record to see the light of day in decades.

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. 

Joe continues, "I was up late one night, I couldn't sleep.  I was playing songs on my iPod from the reissue of The Rolling Stones' Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out, which included all the opening acts from that Stones show," he recalls. "As soon as the Ike & Tina Turner tracks came on, I just said out loud, 'Beth Hart.'  I emailed Kevin, saying, 'Let's do a soul covers record with Beth,' and he replied back, 'Actually, that's a great idea.'"

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.

Joe Bonamassa continues an impressive winning streak - he has recorded and toured relentlessly over the last few years, and has not made a single misstep. In fact, he keeps getting better. His playing keeps improving with every project, every road trip. This is fairly uncommon - historically, most guitar slingers have seen decreased creativity with an increased workload. This may be due to the fact that Bonamassa plays a pretty clean game, with none of the typical excesses that have traditionally been stumbling blocks for so many great players. Joe seems to be oblivious to any pressures (another benefit of largely running his own show?), and just keeps delivering the goods. His phrasing, tone, and note choices are sublime across the whole of this record, from wobbly and dark tremolo'd arpeggios to passionate single string solos - he is on it.

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.

Tom Waits has a long history of supplying amazing songs for singers brave enough to tackle his challenging prose and idiosyncratic melodies, and Chocolate Jesus gets the full treatment as Hart and Bonamassa take it down to bourbon town with a jazzy beat and some cinematic underpinnings from the band. Bonamassa's tone is drenched in a damp bit of pitch shifted reverberation - just right for the strangeness required from Mr. Waits tune. Hart reaches deep here and pushes her vocals with a sophisticated, thick vibrato and some very earthy belting. Great phrasing from the singer on this one.

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.

Don't Explain is a Billie Holiday classic that has Hart respectfully matching the tone of the Queen of the Blues, but with a warmer, slightly less reedy tone. The arrangement is not quite as complex as on the original, but you get the bonus of Bonamassa sounding a bit like Jeff Beck blowing a sax. The six stringer evokes just the right tone on everything here, never being obtrusive, but filling his slots with sublime playing, and consistently keeping things interesting with his choices of axes, and effects.

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.'

Something's Got A Hold On Me covers the rougher side of Etta James, and this one jumps and swings. A very different groove - this is has a bounce that suggest Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett. This one will get you moving and breaking out your old Stax box sets for sure.

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.

Someone finally had the good sense to throw a microphone in front of Joe Bonamassa for a treatment of Delaney & Bonnie's Well, Well. The last few seasons has seen Bonamassa go from being a passable blues belter to being a world class singer. I can't give the guy too much credit here. How often does anyone become a great vocalist? It's a rarity, I can tell you that much, and Bonamassa has put in the work and developed his voice to become as impressive as his massive guitar skills.

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.

1 comment:

gluchnurse said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.