Beth Hart & Joe Bonamassa: Black Coffee (CD) (Released: 2018)
It has been 4 years since 2013’s critically acclaimed, Grammy nominated, and number 1 Billboard Blues album Seesaw was released by singer-songwriter and blues-rock powerhouse Beth Hart and guitar hero Joe Bonamassa. Since then, they have both been on fire, riding creative tidal waves both in the studio and live. So, the time was primed perfectly to reunite for another collection of scorching interpretations of ten soul gems that twins Hart’s breath-taking vocals, that sweep and delve deep into the belly of the song and Joe’s masterfully expressive playing make Black Coffee, released on January 26th, 2018, a captivating listen.
With producer extraordinaire Kevin ‘The Caveman’ Shirley (Joe Bonamassa, Led Zeppelin, Black Crowes, Aerosmith, Iron Maiden, Rush) back at the helm, the result is the stunning rollercoaster that digs deep into the soul catalogue where they honour but re-imagine songs from Edgar Winter, Etta, James, Ike & Tina Turner/Steve Marriot, Ella Fitzgerald, Lil’ Green, LaVern Baker, Howlin’ Wolf, Lucinda Williams and Waldeck. Each one having the majestic heart and soul that Beth and Joe bleed on each record.
Recorded in 5 days at Studio at the Palms, Las Vegas in August 2016 with some of the finest musicians around, they have once again recalled some familiar names in Anton Fig (Drums/Percussion), Ron Dziubla (Saxophone), and Lee Thornburg (Horn Arrangements/Trumpet/Trombone) and welcomed in Reese Wynans (Keyboards), Michael Rhodes (Bass), Rob McNelley (Rhythm Guitar), Paulie Cerra (Saxophone), Mahalia Barnes (Backing Vocals), Jade Macrae (Backing Vocals) and Juanita Tippins (Backing vocals).
Talking about the sessions behind Black Coffee, Seesaw, 2011’s Don’t Explain and 2014s Live in Amsterdam, Shirley gives some insight of what they are looking to achieve; “We’re trying not to dig into a playbook that’s been done many times which is the old soul classics. We try and find a different spin on it, originally it was about trying to find some songs that people didn’t know at all and bring them back to people’s attention.”
One such song, was a Joe suggestion, the album opener Give It Everything You Got taken from 1971s Edgar Winter’s White Trash album, with its hard rock meets Stax infused sound, the band deliver a formidable performance. “I don’t think that’s a song a lot of people know, it’s an old soul classic but it’s not really amongst the pantheon of the ones you expect,” says Shirley
“One of the things Jeff Beck had said to me once that I thought was so wonderful was” explains Hart. “He said, as soon as you get comfortable, and if you stay there, you’re just gonna start dying as an artist. And I feel that, one of the gifts that I’ve got with working with Joe is that I’m always uncomfortable- in a good way. “
Shirley adds about the band, ”those guys just played live, they just came in and played, it was mind numbingly incredible to be in the studio when that happens, the band were so great.”
Lullaby of the Leaves, originally recorded by Ella Fitzgerald, was one of the lesser known songs on 1964’s Hello Dolly and like with how they approached Strange Fruit on Seesaw, they transformed the song into a delicate but brooding and cinematic offering.
“For me I’m able to explore the kind of music I have always admired from afar,” reveals Bonamassa. “But you don’t want to hear me singing Ella Fitzgerald…” he explained as Beth joins in. “I would never do Ella Fitzgerald without being with Joe, the things I get to do with you are things I think I grew up always wanting to do, but never believed I could.”
The gospel flavoured R&B workout Saved originally performed by LaVern Baker - only the second female solo artist to be inducted in to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991 - has been covered by; Elvis Presley, Brenda Lee, Billy Fury, Elkie Brooks and The Band amongst others and is a full throttle, raucous, tongue-in-cheek moment, written from the perspective of someone who had lived a fast, loose life but is then "saved" and is now standing on a corner preaching to the passers-by. They also take an altogether different mood on the luscious Soul on Fire, where they pay homage to Baker’s first ever solo release.
Sitting On Top of The World is a stone cold classic and has been recorded by some of the world’s most iconic artists; Ray Charles, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Cream and the Grateful Dead have all stamped their mark on it. Here it has a swirling duel from Bonamassa’s searing guitar and Wynan’s keys whilst Hart’s voice helps propel the song through the stratosphere. The sultry punch of Lucinda Williams’ Joy has an irresistible guttural groove. “We have tracks like that in which, it was such a noisy jam in the studio, and I love that track, the energy in it.” Shirley enthuses. Addicted, is taken from the 2007 trip-hop leaning album by Austrian Electronic trio Waldeck which Shirley came across whilst on holiday and “shazamed” it.
The smouldering Damn Your Eyes is taken from Etta James 1988 comeback record Seven Year Itch, Kansas Joe McCoy’s jazz-blues Why Don’t You Do It Right? made its first impact on Lil Green’s 1941 version before Peggy Lee covered it a year later which went on to sell over 1 million copes after appearing in the movie Stage Door Canteen in 1943, both see the after dark bar room Jazz shine through. They harness prime Steve Marriot on his take of Ike & Tina Turner’s Black Coffee, inspiration coming from his version live on the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test in 1973, which see’s Beth sing with fire, fury and soul.
“It’s really predicated on the vocals,” Bonamassa explains. “We can’t cut these tunes without Beth singing and once she starts singing, it’s the glue that inspires us to get the extra 10% out of the playing. If we just cut them and sang later, the magic wouldn’t be there.”
“That’s something the two of us stopped doing many, many years ago” agrees Hart. “There was all this layering and layering and then it’s time for you to sing and it’s like you’re not even making music any more. There’s nothing like being able to sit there live and see Joe, seeing the drums, seeing the bass, being able to see Kevin. I can feel the vibrations, it changes the whole thing.”
“Kevin really gets that that,” she continues. “It’s like he wrote that idea. It just works the best, in the old old days, that’s how they did it, bad ass singers and bad ass musicians would have a couple of hours to get a whole record done or whatever it was they were doing and that was it, it was time to go.”
One of the key aspects of the sessions is to push everyone as much as possible. “They are always out of their comfort zone in the studio, this session especially wasn’t a comfortable session,” Shirley reveals. “Everyone left feeling challenged. It’s intriguing. We go into the studio for 5 days and all of the musicians are challenged, they are all very good musicians, very experienced musicians, top of their field, nothing is easy, this isn’t a summer in the grass session, just a couple of chords, this is people digging in deep.”
- Give It Everything You Got
- Damn Your Eyes
- Black Coffee
- Lullaby Of The Leaves
- Why Don't You Do Right
- Sitting On Top Of The World
- Soul On Fire