You’d think she was Alicia Keys the way she starts her album off with that soulful piano intro. You’d think she was Billie Holiday when she starts slurring about “the man is like a drug” and “if this is love what was I thinking” on the startlingly dramatic opening track, “Baddest Blues,” from the near-brilliant Bang Bang Boom Boom (Provogue/Mascot Label Group). It’s only when those crashing guitar chords resonate with manual dexterity like Led fucking Zeppelin do you know it’s neither of those two.
Then the title track one-ups Amy Winehouse and Adele with a neat little turn-of-phrase and a jaunty gallop of rhythmic intensity (“Rock ‘n’ roll suicide/Meet you on the other side”).
In song after song—every one she wrote—Beth Hart peels off the outer layer of her skin to reveal a depth of emotion rarely seen in pop music today. But is this pop? It ain’t all blues. It certainly isn’t jazz or country. Oh, it’s rock ‘n’ roll all right, no doubt about that. It’s also straight-out in-your-face torch song singing like what they used to call “Red Hot Mamas” back in the day. (Although, come to think of it, “Swing My Thing Back Around,” with its old-school big-band arrangement, could’ve been sung by Dinah Washington.) Beth has that kind of you-can’t-exactly-put-your-finger-on-it voice that includes delicious elements of Phoebe Snow and Rickie Lee Jones.
The only cover version on the album is a belated live entry to capitalize upon the fact that she done stole the 2012 Kennedy Center Honors in tribute to honoree Buddy Guy by performing a stone cold sober hair-raiser of “I’d Rather Go Blind” by her hero Etta James with her friend Jeff Beck.
“Sober” is the key word here. If her name rings familiar, it’s because she was on a fast track to stardom in the ‘90s before mental illness and drug addiction landed her right in the loony bin. Ironically enough, her drug-of-choice Klonopin is used to battle mental disease.
Besides Etta James, the other dead singer she’s most compared to is the lusty, boozing, brawling drug addict Janis Joplin, a tragic figure if there ever was one. Beth could’ve easily ended up like Janis but, as she told me while in preparation for her current tour, “I didn’t like heroin.” She did portray Janis in the off-Broadway version of “Love, Janis,” based on a series of letters Janis wrote to her sister. She felt the role so bad that every night after the performance she’d get fucked-up on Southern Comfort…just like Janis.
Her skin is festooned with ink. Her mind is catapulting—like a trampoline wound too tight—with ideas. She’s grateful, she’s amazed, she’s profoundly moved by this new career arc. Marie Osmond, of all people, has a very cool new afternoon television talk show (cool because of its booking policy). On the show, Hart was the coolest of all, talking with impunity about how nuts she was, how far she had fallen and how high she hopes to yet rise. Then she performed solo on piano and just blew the house away.
When she came out of the insane asylum the second time, she discovered to her horror that she didn’t know how to play piano anymore. She freaked. Then she found a doctor who finally…finally…put her on the right drug. That doc is still with her today, as is that drug. It seems to be allowing her not only to remember the hundreds of songs she knows how to play, but to aspire to heights that seemed impossible just a few short years ago.
Beth Hart is the type of artist you root for.
Upcoming shows include May 11 at The Blockley in Philadelphia, and May 13-15 at City Winery in Manhattan. All four dates are sold out.