Beth Hart + Joe Bonamassa – Don’t Explain (2011)

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Making records and constantly touring — under his own name and with Black Country Communion — keeps Joe Bonamassa one of the busiest musicians working today. All that sweat doesn’t stop Bonamassa from coming up with ideas, pursuing them and following through on them. One inspiration grew out of a concert he attended early last year by L.A. born and raised soul belter Beth Hart. Hart, who has crossed paths frequently with Bonamassa in the European festival circuit, struck him as a perfect collaborative partner for a record, and producer Kevin Shirley agreed. As the admiration between Hart and Bonamassa is mutual, it didn’t take any coaxing to convince Hart to get on board with the idea. And before you know it, Don’t Explain was recorded and is set for release tomorrow (September 27).

Perhaps a big reason why this project went from a seed in Bonamassa’s head to a well-produced, well-performed record in little time is because the songs chosen for this affair are borrowed ones. An album of covers chosen equally by Hart and Bonamassa, Hart takes on perfectly suited songs by Ray Charles, Tom Waits, Delaney and Bonnie and more, traversing across vintage soul, blues rock, Tin Pan Alley, and even chanteuse jazz.

With Bonamassa the bigger draw (for now, at least) and with his band and producer Shirley on board, there might be the suspicion that this is just a Bonamassa record with someone else handling the lead vocals, but that wouldn’t describe Don’t Explain at all; this feels like Hart’s show all the way, with Bonamassa acting as a sideman. A very, very good sideman, I might add. He does get in some leads on nearly every song, but he mostly keeps them punctual, never upstaging Hart. Guitar freaks can still find some choice fretwork all over the record, such as the scorching solos found on “For My Friends,” “I’d Rather Go Blind” and “I’ll Take Care of You.” Bonamassa only open his mouth once on the record, to take harmony vocals on the sassy, upbeat “Well, Well” [get a free download of “Well, Well” here].

Hart, who already has a about a half dozen records out under her own name prior to this one, is in total command on this one even as she’s surrounded by more established artists. She has been compared to Janis Joplin. A lot. And when you hear her push her voice out to the frazzled limits as she does on the climatic bridge of Ray Charles’ “Sinner’s Prayer,” it’s impossible not to think of the intensity and gut wrenching soul that made Joplin the gold standard for the harder-edged divas. But Hart’s pipes can do more.

She can evoke the majestic soul of Etta James on “I’ll Take Care of You” and “Ain’t No Way,” the aching, sultry jazz voice of Dinah Washington on Melody Gardot’s “Your Heart Is As Black As Night,” and even conjure up the ghost of Billie Holiday pretty convincingly on “Don’t Explain.” And can she rock it like Tina Turner? “For My Friends” answers that question with an emphatic “hell, yeah!” By the time you reach the get-on-your-feet-and-start-clapping gospel of “Something’s Got A Hold Of Me,” you’re persuaded that there just ain’t much Ms. Hart can’t master.

A tip of the hat also goes to Shirley, whose made a reputation creating big, bombastic rock soundscapes. He largely discarded those tendencies to put Hart in the most advantageous settings, and also made sure her voice was put way up in front. As a result, Don’t Explain is a prime entry point to explore a bonafide female vocal talent who has what it takes to get people charged up again right now in the wake of Amy Winehouse’s death.

Don’t look now, Joss Stone, but you’ve got Beth Hart breathing down your neck. With a big assist from Joe B.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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