This live album recorded in London in May 2018 captures an outstanding artist at the height of her powers and riding the crest of a wave on the back of another recent live album, “Front & Center” recorded in New York, and a fabulous studio album “Fire on the Floor”. Having seen the lady live for the first time a few weeks before this performance was recorded, I can testify to what a captivating performer she is, both visually and emotionally, aside from her powerful and heartfelt vocal delivery. Her voice is distinctive, all the energy of Janis Joplin (the obvious comparator) without the rawness; it also has a sweet plaintive quality that gives her songs an extra poignancy and is strangely reminiscent of Billie Holiday. I must confess that having previously only known her through her really enjoyable collaborations with Joe Bonamassa I became quite the convert after seeing her in the flesh, so this collection of what is effectively a live best of, featuring almost entirely self-penned songs from her back catalogue, is a real treat for my ears.
Knowing her first as a blues siren and seemingly an interpreter of other’s songs it came as a surprise to see her revealed primarily as a singer songwriter. Most songwriters draw from their life experiences and Beth Hart is no exception. Many songs on this fine collection are introduced with a preamble describing the circumstances that led to the song being written, mostly not of the cheerful kind. She wears her heart on her sleeve and sings with real conviction throughout. The twenty plus songs are paced to offer a variety of different tempos and arrangements: the opening number “As Long As I Have a Song” is sung unaccompanied (how many singers could pull that off?) and is immediately followed by the guitar heavy “For My friends” and a funky “Lifts You Up.” The next number “Close to My Fire” is all sultry vocals and shimmering single sustained guitar chords. “Bang Bang Boom Boom” from the album of the same name picks up the beat again; you get the picture, it’s a set cleverly paced to offer light and shade. What is impressive is that what seems like a big expansive sound is largely the work of an unobtrusive trio led by Jon Nicholson on guitar with rock steady support from Bob Marinelli on bass and Bill Ransom on drums. For “Good as it Gets” the band becomes a four piece as Beth Hart joins in on piano, adding a whole new dimension to the sound. This is one of the stand out tracks; excellent piano arrangement and playing and a fierce solo from Nicholson. The jaunty feel continues with “Spirit of God” inspired by a youthful experience of visiting a Baptist Revival church. Of course, this is followed by the torch like “Baddest Blues” with its haunting piano introduction. These are all really good, raw, emotive numbers. The emotion remains high with the following song, “Sister Heroine” a tribute to the singer’s dead sister. So it goes on, with many highlights: the introduction to “Waterfalls” has the audience following the singer’s lead as she sings what sounds like an American Indian funeral wail resulting in quite an eerie effect. A rare cover, Melody Gardot’s “Your Heart is as Black as Night” is delicious, a melodic slow burn featuring a bluesy guitar solo. Lieber and Stoller’s “Saved” from “Black Coffee” is a fast paced romp featuring great guitar work. The songs range across her career, “Spiders In My Bed” (written about her life before she was diagnosed as bipolar) from her 1995 first album “Immortal” to the excellent “Love is a Lie” from “Fire on the Floor” her most recent studio album. If you are Beth Hart fan then of course you are going to love these slightly stripped-down versions of familiar songs; for the newcomer this is as good a place to start as any for a career spanning retrospective that will surely whet the appetite to catch this amazing performer when she next tours the UK.