Stereo Board Review
There was a telling lyric on the first album of sweltering soul & blues covers from former wild child Beth Hart and omnipotent guitar god Joe Bonamassa; 'well, well...getting to know you so well'. Turns out, that's exactly what they were doing. For whilst 2011's 'Don't Explain' was a huge success, it's follow up is bigger, brassier and sassier on every level. By breathing a contemporary fire into classics from Etta James, Billie Holiday and Aretha Franklin, alongside modern efforts courtesy of Slackwax, Lucinda Williams and Melody Gardot, they've created an album overflowing with passion, vitality and class. If 'Don't Explain' was the sound of a musical first date brimming with potential, 'Seesaw' is very much the head-over-heels-in-love honeymoon phase.
Buoyed by their débuts plaudits and with increased experience of working together, Beth and Joe exude extra confidence in their performances and interactions, making 'Seesaw' a more synergistic effort as a result. Where 'Don't Explain' had moments that felt like a showcase for Hart's vocal splendour or Bonamassa's guitar heroics, there's a togetherness here that's symbiotic and perfectly judged. And that includes the sizeable contribution of the to-die-for band, with sensational chemistry and interplay between Joe Bo regulars Anton Fig, Carmine Rojas, Blondie Chaplin, Arlan Schierbaum and the show stealing horn work of Lee Thornburg. Their outstanding musicianship fleshes out the tunes with subtle, yet beguiling layers of instrumentation that reveal more textural beauty and colour with each listen. Coupled with the material being stronger, more upbeat and energetic than it's slow burning predecessor, 'Seesaw' is guaranteed to sweep listeners away with it's effervescent moxie.
That fizzing dynamism is due to a number of factors. Firstly, recording the musicians playing together makes it feel like a holistic band effort, buzzing with a live immediacy and improvised looseness that promotes the moment capturing magic essential for this kind of music. After all, Etta and co weren't exactly using pro tools! Secondly, where 'Don't Explain's numbers were bathed in an ocean of romantic strings, a feisty horn section powers 'Seesaw', stomping its uplifting zest all over the songs with a booty shaking swing. From the short, sharp blast of brass that opens Billie Holiday's 'Them There Eyes' – where you can almost see Hart grinning like a sexy Cheshire cat as she saucily purrs her lyrics – to the topsy turvy rock & soul of the punchy title track and the rollicking rawness of Tina Turner's 'Nutbush City Limits', Thornburg's horns catalyse the album's spirited élan. If he wasn't playing alongside such talented musicians, he'd easily be the star.
As such, Beth Hart takes those honours, and her growth since 'Don't Explain' is phenomenal. That's not to say her singing is any better, there's just a sense of confidence and fun that was previously lacking. That may be to do with having a better understanding of the band and their way of working, having played with Joe live several times since DE. It may be down to that record's positive reception, or having more faith in producer Kevin Shirley. They were relatively new to each other on 'Don't Explain', but since then he's produced her last solo album, and it's possibly engendered a trust that's allowed her to relax and deliver the wonderful performances on display here. Whatever the reasons, there aren't enough superlatives to do her justice, especially when you consider she's tackling songs previously sung by some of the greatest vocalists of all time.
Her range of delivery is key to the album's success, and the way she switches between the sultry seduction of 'Close To My Fire', the countrified bluesy rock & roll of 'Can't Let Go' – replete with tasty slide work from Joe and a compulsive groove from Fig and Rojas – and the naked emoting of Etta's 'Sunday Kind Of Love' (her quivering vibrato casts a spine tingling spell) is exceptional. Whether spitting out a scorching rock delivery or the baritone sass of 'Rhymes', with it's lilting 'Son Of A Preacher Man' vibe and gospel style backing vocals, she's arguably the finest all round singer of her generation. And her wickedly sexual take on Melody Gardot's 'If I Tell You I Love You' will make male listeners weak at the knees! You can picture her crooning this noir like jazz ditty in a smoky Parisian night club dressed as a gangster's mole, seductively working her way around the audience whilst caressing lapels and whispering in ears! The only tune she struggles with is the otherwise excellent 'Miss Lady', a veritable orgy of pumping trumpets, stabbing guitars and clattering drums. It's a rare misfire as she doesn't get to grips with the vocal melody – going for bawling bombast at the expense of the tune.
Given his past excellence and deserved reputation, there's a danger we might start taking Joe Bonamassa for granted! It's almost assumed he'll always be superb, and whilst that's again the case, his contribution to 'Seesaw' is refreshingly mature, unselfish and tasteful. Instead of his guitar dominating the songs he weaves in and out with cultured little flourishes that augment the tunes without getting in Hart's way or stealing the limelight. Many of the songs are peppered with lovely little call and response passages where Joe answers Beth with crisp, deft licks that compliment her vocal perfectly. Once again highlighting the telepathic bond they've developed for working together to bring out the best in the material. There are trademark Bonamassa solo breaks at appropriate moments, particularly on Donnie Hathaway's 'I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know', a slow paced blueser that finds him on familiar ground as he impresses with a characteristically heartfelt climactic solo. But even that's more focussed on phrasing, tone and feel rather than scene stealing razzle dazzle. When a guitarist has that ability in their locker, yet chooses to play with such restraint, it's what makes them truly great.
Overall, 'Seesaw' is an artistic masterpiece that's certain to brighten up your day, and a special mention must go to producer Kevin Shirley. Often criticised for his bottom heavy sound and a pathological inability to add some high end to recordings, his work is spot on. The album shimmers and sparkles with a clarity that allows the instruments to breathe and shine, injecting a vitality that belies the retro aesthetic of the musical styles.
It's exciting to think where Beth and Joe could go from here. The mind explodes with exciting possibilities. Tours could be spectacular. More covers albums essential. How about a collection of Hart / Bonamassa originals? And, for the love of God would someone please send a copy of this record to the producers of the Bond films! Their ability to combine timeless elements of drama, melody and romance makes them ideal candidates to record the theme tune for 007's next outing. Whatever's on the horizon for this delectable duo, we can only hope they'll be many more releases like 'Seesaw' for many, many more years to come. This may not be the start, but it's certainly the continuation of a beautiful friendship.