There are many pretenders to the contemporary female vocalist crown worn by Amy Winehouse – at her very best: that sultry jazz warble and emotive inflections. And those pretenders are by and large pathetic in their attempts, the affectations churning out warning noises rather than echoes and individual achievements. Beth Hart is no pretender to the crown, in fact, having such vocal excellence in her own right, but she certainly impresses in the way that Winehouse could, at her very best.
This second release with Joe Bonamassa is superb. Opening big band jazz number Them There Eyes does immediately remind of Winehouse – at her best – and this is followed by a sultry piece of excellence in Close To My Fire. By third Nutbush City Limits, the temptation for comparison is unnecessary, though on this it is inevitable, and Hart sails along the Turner line. Fourth, Al Kooper’s lovely ballad I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know, is exquisitely covered, the emotion conveyed with beauty and strength. And it’s saying something about Hart’s singing that a mention of Bonamassa doesn’t even come into it yet, though his guitar support is, as ever, brilliant.
On fifth Can’t Let Go, Hart sings with impressive gusto and growl, and Bonamassa is effortlessly slick in accompaniment. This increasingly hot dueting is advanced with gasoline prompts on sixth Miss Lady, Bonamassa sparking off with some fiery wah wah and Hart burning with Joplinesque heat. Stunning. Eighth, Al Green’s Rhymes, is a soulful and funky rendition that showcases Hart’s absolute perfection: such inherent strength and natural gruff warble. Bonamassa again contributes his glistening guitar gift-wrap – the excellence informed by the fact his playing never intrudes as solo shining but compliments with its sustained synergy. Ninth A Sunday Kind Of Love, made famous by Etta James, is seriously sexual.
The album ends powerfully with Strange Fruit, though this is a separate sense of strength. It is a brave cover because of the plurality of its meaningfulness here: its performance history – most notable and obviously Billy Holliday; the painfully poetic storytelling, but also because it ends an album otherwise so upbeat and dynamic in its collective focus. But Hart manages to grace this with genuine emotion, and Bonamassa adds a haunting layer in his distant moaning guitar. On an album of consistently impressive performances, this seals the achievement thoughtfully as well as superlatively, and it is a fitting tribute to Holliday that this album is bookended by songs she made famous.