Beth Hart finally made it back to the Twin Cities. Her Pantages appearance was a rescheduled show after a viral infection laid her low last year. The full house made it clear that they’d been waiting months for her to make it up to them. I feel sorry for those poor folks who had the original date circled and then were out of town tonight. Because, ladies and gentlemen, you missed something very special.
Let’s get the hyperbole out of the way. There’s no better female vocalist on the planet. Period.
It’s not simply a once in a generation voice. Reputable press has been saying that for years. It’s more than the power and expression. Nor is it that she’s a remarkable songwriter (or selector of songs to cover). It’s the emotional honesty. Some artists have a piece of this package. Beth Hart is the whole enchilada. To sit in her presence for a solo acoustic show is an emotional experience. She bares her soul.
Life has not been, nor is it now, easy for Hart. Her battles with addiction are well chronicled. She’s very open about it. At least for now, she sings for her sobriety and she’s doing just fine.
Ironically, I had a conversation with someone earlier in the day in which I stated that I truly wasn’t interested in what an artist did off the stage (OK, there’s a limit. I’m not inclined to give my money to somebody I truly believe is a bad dude). Nor do I care about their political or religious beliefs. They are welcome to them. The stage is not a bully pulpit. I simply believe music is, and should be, a place where people of different backgrounds, experience and beliefs can come together and share. It’s one of the things that makes music a healer.
But if you come to a Beth Hart show, at least in this stripped down format, you are going to get a dose of pain and insight from a human being who has struggled. In her case, I was fine with that because there is no agenda. It’s not Hart asking for understanding. It’s not Hart using her struggles with self doubt and chemicals as an object lesson. Or a platform to sell her music. It’s simply a woman doing what she needs to do in order to maintain her sobriety and sanity. She doesn’t hide. The courage to open her heart the way she does takes a nearly unfathomable amount of courage. Beth Hart is an inspiration. To those who struggle like her, she is a beacon of hope.
This show was unique because I never really got the impression she was trying to “entertain” us. Instead, she was simply sharing a very personal piece of her being. We all sat (and on a number of occasions stood) through 90 minutes and never felt down. We never felt sorry for her. She certainly didn’t ask for it. Dark song after dark song rolled out from the stage. Yet, none of us felt inclined to ever cry Uncle. It speaks volumes about what a unique experience she delivered from the stage.
Beth Hart has a slew of critically acclaimed albums behind her. She has recorded two brilliant collaborations with Joe Bonamassa, that helped expose her to a wider audience. She was a featured vocalist at the Kennedy Center Honors as Buddy Guy received his due. Yet, when she bounced on stage barefoot and in ripped jeans, she was visibly nervous.
The show began with that admission. In her own words, without her band there was no way to hide behind any of that show biz shit. As each song concluded, there was a deep breath and sigh of relief. To her, she’d gotten through another one without messing up. To all of us in the audience, she’d just knocked our socks off again.
That’s really what makes Hart so compelling. She’s one complex cat. From the outside, we look and listen and conclude that here’s a woman into which God poured all his largess. The intelligence, the looks, the multi-instrumental musical ability, a voice that can only be compared to the likes of Bette Midler or Amy Winehouse. Yet, the woman she has always seen in the mirror is something radically different. Something flawed and unlovable. To someone who has never encountered depression or chemical addiction, it must seem bewildering. To those who have, we understand her very well.
This show ran the gamut from powerful and brash to heartbroken and raw. It’s not an act or deliberately conceived show in which her songs are supposed to demonstrate her emotional range. They are simply her; what she’s feeling at a given time. There is an informality, an anti rock star kind of persona. If a song worked particularly well and the audience jumped to its feet, she was quick to switch tacks and say: “Hey, if you liked that one, maybe you’ll like this one, too!”
Hart does not proselytize from the stage. But she’s transparent when it comes to her own spirituality. Time and again she introduced a song by talking about her relationship to God. Or her loss of that connection and spiral into the depths. Her song As Long As I Have A Song is about how writer’s block would become a trigger to fall off the wagon. As long as she could sit at the piano and create a song, she felt connected to Him. When she couldn’t write, she felt lost and alone.
In the song St. Teresa, which she wrote before Mother Theresa became a saint, she quietly implores her to mother her. To bring her back to some kind of acceptance and sanctity, because she is lost and unlovable. Near the end of the song, she broke down and wept. It took her a moment to compose herself. She seemed genuinely embarrassed by her loss of composure and apologized. The audience immediately picked her up. Anyone who didn’t was born with a severe dearth of empathy and understanding. But what it really drove home to me, was how these songs weren’t dialed up for us. They were essential to her recovery. It’s how she copes.
Before one concludes that we were just witnessing some kind of broken woman working through her pain, there were moments of sheer joy; when the vamp lit up the stage. She introduced the song Bang Bang Boom Boom as something she had written after watching the movie “Natural Born Killers”. She called it romantic, sexy and not in any small way, naughty. As she hammered away at her Yamaha grand piano, she literally danced on the bench. She isn’t just pious. She can also be one bad-ass lady. Like I said, complex.
I mentioned earlier her once in a generation voice. Maybe I should have said many generations. As proof, she gave us a pair of stunning covers by iconic singers. One was an Ella Fitzgerald. One was a Billie Holiday. Both of those vocal powerhouses had the unique ability to slide around inside a note, in much the same way as a guitar player bends a string. The progression, not quite where we expect it to go. In both cases, she teed up the song by downplaying her version. That is flat wrong. Only one in a million could pull it off, even fewer would have the nerve to attempt it in front of a packed auditorium. She brought the house down.
Speaking of auditoriums, time and time again my notes ask: Why the hell does she have a microphone? She sure doesn’t need it. It’s only there for some of the breaths, low moans or whimpers. When she lets loose, that voice explodes from the stage to the last seats of the balcony. The only person in that room not in awe of that voice was named Beth Hart. But then, the last person to fully appreciate the gift she gives listeners, is Beth Hart. There is something endearing in that. It made all of us just want to take her hand and tell her to relax. She’s fine just the way she is.
And many did. During her encore she slipped from the stage and walked out among the audience, singing and touching hands. Again, there was this incredible intimacy and vulnerability. Unlike the rocker jumping from the stage to kick it up a notch, in this case it was a way to connect on a human level. And a chance to reassure herself that what she was giving was appreciated. She’s been at it a long time. Yet, her ego still won’t let her fully believe in what she does.
Over the years I’ve seen literally thousands of live music acts. Like everybody else, I love a great production. I love big shows and over the top energy. Superb musicianship is a big plus. More than anything, however, I love authenticity. Tonight was as honest as it gets.
When it comes to singer/songwriters I normally appreciate them in small, intimate spaces. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a performance that took a large space and shrunk it like she did. Made it so immediate. Or made me care more for an artist simply as a human being. I was deeply moved. So were all those around me.
This was not a night of joy. But it was certainly not depressing. It left me with a sense of hope. Hope that Beth Hart will find a sense of serenity in the little doses of joy in everyday life. Hope for all of those who have lost their way and don’t feel a sense of self worth. Hope that she comes to understand the tremendous good she can do by simply by extending her hand and raising her voice. Most of all, hope that she will continue to share her gifts with those who want to hear her.
Sometimes the most powerful art is stark. It walks the cliff line of personal catastrophe and self destruction. Tonight Beth Hart walked us to that edge. Then gently reminded us how dangerous it can be before bringing us back safely to all those little things that make life worth living.