Beth Hart is an edgy, take-no-prisoners soul singer from L.A., (along the lines of a Janis Joplin or Aretha Franklin), and Joe Bonamassa from NY, the guitar shredding bluesman, have put out their 3rd studio album together, Black Coffee in January 2018. This dynamic duo, one of the best in the business, first met in 2010 when famed producer Kevin Shirley coaxed them to combine their raw talents to make an album. Don’t Complain was the result, an album of all covers which won critical acclaim, and reached #3 on Billboard’s Blues Chart. Two years later they released their 2nd effort Seesaw, which was nominated for a Grammy in 2013.
On this set, the two put their own sultry spin on pieces by Edgar Winter, Ray Charles, Etta James, Ella Fitzgerald, Howlin’ Wolf, Ike and Tina Turner/Steve Marriott, Peggy Lee, and Lucinda Williams and more. The record was cut in 5 days at Studio at the Palms, Las Vegas, and features some of the best players around, starting with stud producer Kevin Shirley (Led Zeppelin, Black Crowes, Rush), Anton Fig on drums/percussion, Ron Dziubla on saxophone, Lee Thornburg arranging the horns, trombone/trumpet, Reese Wynans on keyboards, Michael Rhodes on bass, Rob McNelley rhythm guitar, Paulie Cera on sax, and backup vocals by Mahalia Barnes, Jade Macrae and Juanita Tippins.
The album blows open with Winter’s Give It Everything You’ve Got, redirected with punchy drums and horns, and Hart’s raspy voice gives it everything she’s got which sets this remarkable record up for a wild soulful blues ride. Bonamassa’s solo takes off like a rocket with 1959 Les Paul Sunburst, the gritty fleet-of-finger axeman truly gives it straight from the cojones. Lullaby the Leaves, made famous by Ella Fitzgerald, is a brooding bluesy take sung with such passionate delivery, backed by a wall of sound peaking to soulful heights. Soul of Fire covers a LaVern Baker version that shows Hart’s tender side, her timbre and feeling here are just delicious. Damn Your Eyes is from Etta James’ 1988 album Seven Year Itch, and this version sizzles, drips blues, and you can see why they chose this song, Hart’s voice is the perfect fit. If that after-midnight jazz bar sound makes you smile, you’ll love Why Don’t You Do Right, originally recorded by Lil Green, and rebooted here with delightful results. The title track Black Coffee is an Ike and Tina Turner song they deliver with that gritty aggressive Steve Marriott’s 1973 cover of the song while he was with Humble Pie. Hart’s gnarly voice is the essential element, according to Bonamassa, “It’s really predicated on the vocals. 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 out of the playing. If we just cut them, and sang later, the magic wouldn’t be there”.
Another LaVern Baker number covered here is Saved, a gospel R&B ditty that was also covered by the likes of Elvis, Brenda Lee, Billy Fury, Elkie Brooks and The Band, to name a few, and why not?, it’s about living a hard, fast, wild life, only to be saved, and they pound this one out with raucous toe-tapping flair. Likewise, track 7, Sitting on Top of the World, has been done by several greats, including Ray Charles, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, Cream and The Grateful Dead. Hart, Bonamassa and company nail this one behind the devilish duel between Wyman's ivories with Bonamassa’s smoking riffs, on top of Hart’s rock n blues pipes makes this classic a beauty.
Finally, let’s not forget Joy, a Lucinda Williams song that simply dazzles in it’s crisp yet raw delivery. The sultry background vocals behind Fig’s bats and Rhodes’ heavy bass line propel this number to exquisite places. Bonamassa shreds a wicked solo on his Fender Stratocaster, a guitar he’s had for over 20 years, and which he claims, “This is a master set up and is why innovations of Leo Fender stand the test of time and beyond”.
The album comprises 10 tracks, and has an extra song, Come Rain or Come Shine, on the deluxe copy. This is a solid gem of a record, with weapons-grade production and raw talent.