March 23, 2023

The first time I went to a Beth Hart gig, she was wearing a floor-length dress and performing, hippy-like, in bare feet – the second time she was wearing a shimmering gold leopard-print number and throwing shapes; a very different presentation, but the same great voice, of course. Her incredible ability to communicate with an audience, along with her openness about her dark past and mental and emotional issues, mean you never really know who’s going to walk on stage – tonight she plays up her bad girl side to the hilt in spandex leggings and big, clumpy boots, growling, snarling and chewing nicotine gum.

All photos by Les Linyard

The audience had already been warmed up by three-times Young Blues Artist Of The Year, Connor Selby from Essex. Toting a classic semi-acoustic guitar, he played and sang half an hour’s worth of songs from his new self-titled album, accompanied by the second guitarist from his band, Joe Anderton. Apparently unfazed by the grandiose surroundings, Selby’s rich vocal tones and mature guitar licks assured him plenty of fans in the audience. But then, he played Wembley stadium four years ago, on a bill topped by The Who, so at 25 years old, he’s not short of gigging experience.

Beth Hart’s appearance on stage was a big relief, as this was supposed to be her second evening at the Palladium, but the previous night’s performance was called off at hazardously late notice due to illness. She put the blame on a recurrence of Covid symptoms, whilst assuring the crowd that she’s now testing negative; nevertheless, her show often includes mingling with the crowd, but tonight she stayed firmly on stage. Instead of starting on a high-energy rocker, she crept to the piano in a darkened theatre, and as the spotlight came up, sang an emotional, downbeat solo piece called Baddest Blues. For a starter, it was stunning, incredibly evocative, and while she is widely acknowledged as the best blues-rock singer currently drawing breath, her excellent piano skills are often overlooked.

Beth has never fought shy of uttering the odd public cuss-word, but confessed that her husband has cautioned her about her language on-stage, and she announced her intention to cut it down to a couple of occurrences, plus whatever is in the songs. All to no avail though, as the first full-band song Waterfalls ended on the word ‘shit’, and as the gig progressed, the profane content hit a record high, alongside the easy, comfortable banter with her band, the crew and the audience. A medley of When The Levee Breaks and Dancing Days from her recent Led Zeppelin tribute album followed, and it’s clear from the audience reaction that they would like to have heard more from that set.

Many of the songs come with a back-story, and it’s not always what you might expect – Tell Her You Belong To Me, from the 2015 album Better Than Home, is always a highlight – it sounds like a song of romantic jealousy, but she applies it to her beloved Dad, and his relationship with a woman who drove a wedge between them – it’s tremendous live, with a stonking Telecaster solo, a tight stop, and then Beth back on the piano for the quiet section.

All photos by Les Linyard

This is followed by a rousing bit of gospel in Spirit Of God, which Beth says reflects her Christian re-awakening at a Baptist Revival meeting, followed by the exact opposite with Bad Woman Blues, which she says demonstrates her “bipolar shit”. It’s impossible to enumerate all the many highlights from a superb set, so we’ll jump forward to Leave The Light On, which comes with a tearful back story about her husband Scott (always a close presence at every gig), effectively saving her life. She plays this one by herself at the piano, ticking off some of the harrowing circumstances in her life that mean she still sleeps with the light on – it’s an absolutely astonishing piece of soul-baring musical theatre. The stage is clearly Beth’s natural environment, and she owns it as completely as anyone could.

She then swaps the piano for an acoustic guitar, while having an amusing altercation with someone off-stage, during which Scott comes on and flicks the capo off her guitar, and the tech slithers on to replace it so she can sing Ugliest House On The Block, quite the most profane burst of invective I have ever heard put to music. She then showcases some serious bass guitar skills, swapping the 6-string for an acoustic 4-string to accompany a stunning, stripped-down version of the 1996 song Isolation.

There followed an extended acoustic band section, with bassist Tom Lilly playing an upright bass, guitarist Jon Nichols swapping between nylon-strung and steel-strung acoustics, and drummer Bill Ransom giving a masterclass on the bongos and alternative percussion. It’s another side to an already excellent band, and they just have time to squeeze in another Led Zep medley, No Quarter (on which Tom Lilly plays electric piano), and Babe I’m Going To Leave You, squeaking uncomfortably close to the 11pm curfew.

I have to say, I’m used to Beth’s highly versatile voice alternating between a vulnerable, tremulous warble and raunchy rock power, and everywhere in between, but there was little of the vulnerable about her tonight. Yes, she is generous with praise and thanks, to her band, crew, husband, friends, mentors and audiences, including a tearful tribute to the late Jeff Beck, with whom she recorded some memorable performances. But then, many of the songs were accompanied with autobiographical episodes of when she felt like killing someone, daydreamed how to kill someone, or came this close to killing someone; times that various addictions had almost snuffed her out, and references to time spent in jail or rehab. Ominous croaks and snarls punctuated the performance, as she appeared to be struggling to hold down the lid on her demons. Yes, she’s still the best blues rock singer on the planet, and her performance was incredible throughout; in some places genuinely breathtaking. She’s a vocal and instrumental genius; I hope she manages to hold it together.