Front and Center, Beth Hart, album review, Rock and Blues Muse

By Tom O’Connor

Venerable vocalist and Bluessmith, Beth Hart, will be releasing Front and Center on April 13 via Provogue Records/Mascot Label Group. Her first live recording in over a decade, this potent collection is a start-to-finish document of one night’s powerful performance at the Iridium Jazz Club. Undaunted by the challenge of recording a full set, Hart’s confidence is palpable from the opening notes of the evening to the final flourishes of the closer.

Known for her dynamic range and emotional honesty, it is no wonder her vocals have made her a much-sought after guest on recordings by such heavy hitters as Jeff Beck, Slash and Joe Bonamassa. As accomplished as her vocals are though, what we really hear and feel on this collection is an artist who is driven to go as far as it takes to really connect with her audience in that live in-the-present moment.

The set eases out of the station with opener “Let’s Get Together.” Unquestionably the most light-weight song of the collection, it feels most like a welcoming invitation to anyone who might not know (yet) what a treat they’re in for. Hart’s smooth croons invite everyone to come a little closer, settle in, and be part of what is going to be happening. Things then take a serious turn with the dark yet fragile-sounding “Baddest Blues,” to also let you know that you’re going to have to contribute some emotion to this musical hour too, if you’re brave enough.

There is a real strut to “Jazz Man.” This finger-snapping piano-driven tune includes a taste of scat singing from Beth Hart and some nifty piano and guitar exchanges with Jon Nichols. The tone turns from jazzy to rocking on “Delicious Surprise” with a spirited call-and-response opening that reminds you that you’re listening to the real deal, live, in front of a crowd that expects to be entertained, and is definitely not feeling disappointed with the evening so far. “Broken and Ugly” is neither, instead it is an upbeat anthem of defiance and redemption.

Quieting things down at the mid-point, Hart unleashes “St. Teresa,” a showcase for pure song craft and honey-thick vocal phrases that land heavy on your soul. She follows that by dipping into her back catalogue for the fervent and heartfelt “Isolation,” which unflinchingly chronicles her battle with bi-polar disorder. Just when you think the emotion can’t get any more raw, along comes “Tell Her You Belong To Me.” A stand-out track on an album full of winners, this six-and-a-half-minute torch song describes a love only a fool or, more likely, a coward, would walk away from. The swagger and strut comes back to both the vocals and the band on the rollicking “Fat Man.”

In case you’ve forgotten that a “vocalist” can only really soar when the rest of the band is powerful enough to toss her in the air, “Love Gangster,” with its seemingly casual feel, reminds you that Beth Hart surrounds herself with the best players who can all make it look and sound deceptively easy, especially when it isn’t. That soft, but incredibly confident, band touch continues on the poignant “Leave the Light On.” Hart then accompanies herself on solo piano for “As Long As I Have a Song,” a torch song about torch songs.

Effortlessly leading her audience out of the emotional depths yet again, Hart and the band re-shake a few rafters on the riff-anchored, “For My Friends” with some growling vocals and plenty of swaggering attitude. Perfectly selected set and album closing ode “No Place Like Home” highlights everything that makes Beth Hart such a formidable performer. Her heartfelt vocals float over a matter-of-fact piano base, confessing every feeling and leaving her so emotionally exposed to her audience that it can only be called an act of courage.

I am already looking forward to her next live album.

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