It’s been a long two years. My hyper-cautious ass has been all too happy to stay away from crowds, and I only started tiptoeing my way out of plague mode last month, twenty-four months and three days after my last concert. I’d been itching to get back into the photo-pit, where some two decades ago I first fell in love with what became my craft, and when the opportunity arose to photograph blues singer Beth Hart at my favorite live music theater in San Antonio, I was more than a little eager to shout “yeah gimmie.” I had a passing familiarity with Ms Hart through her collaborations with Joe Bonamassa and was well aware of her notoriety on stage, so I was fairly certain I’d be in for something special.
Opener “King” Solomon Hicks kicked the night off with a seven-song set that comprised of reinterpretations of blues classics, as many blues and jazz artists tend to do. Accompanied solely by bassist Kirk Yano, Hicks tore through his set with brass and tenacity that belie his tender 27 years. From Freddie King’s “I’d Rather Be Blind” (from Solomon’s most recent album “Harlem”) down to cuts by lesser-known acts like Bobby “Blues” Bland and Sonny Boy Williamson, Hicks and Yano performed for a spellbound audience like no duo I’d ever seen. Ms Hart herself even ran onto the stage and prostrated before Hicks and lovingly embraced him when he and Yano wrapped their blistering cover of BB King’s “Every Day I Have the Blues,” eliciting excited roars from the audience. If Hicks can tear into a crowd like this with only a bassist behind him, I’d be keenly interested to see what he can do when backed by a full band. This dude is good.
Ms Hart kicked off her set with a few covers of her own, from her recent collection of by-the-book but still badass Led Zeppelin covers. Zeppelin are one of those bands whose impact cannot be understated and whose music I absolutely adore, but I’ve heard them enough that I’ll be fine if I never do again. Ms Hart, however finds a way give classics like “When the Levee Breaks” and the OYG-I’ll-never-not-love-this “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” a new urgency even while remaining true to the original. That latter tune and the spacey “No Quarter” especially permit her to show off those incredible lungs of hers: that voice is powerful enough that she routinely brings her mic down to waist level when she’s really belting it out, and I can personally attest that you’d have to see her do it to believe she can throw her voice that far.
That’s not the only aspect of the Beth Hart live experience that’s earned her acclaim on stage. Ms Hart loses herself in performance like no other musician I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen lots), and she does so to the point where she becomes a conduit for song rather than a mere interpreter. Whether she wrested the song from her own soul or if it’s a cover matters little when Ms Hart is at the helm, but where others may say that she makes the music her own even if it’s someone else’s, I’ll posit this: one simply cannot claim to be fully in change when song overpowers their very agency. Beth Hart does not play music. Music plays Beth Hart. And to witness Ms Hart surrender that agency to her craft before an audience of over a thousand awestruck attendees bordered on transcendental.
As compelling as her performance is, Ms Hart is also one of the most disarming musicians I’ve ever seen on stage, frequently quipping about the silly shit that’s happened in her life (“My pastor told our congregation to pray to God for Beth to stop cussing, but then the f**king pandemic happened”) while also bonding with her audience over the many struggles she’s endured. For instance, she opened up to her fans about the suicidal tendencies she felt while getting sober as she introduced the searing “War In My Mind,” and she spoke at length about the love and admiration she holds for her sister Sharon, who died of AIDS-related complications in the early 90s and has become a reliable muse for Ms Hart. Two of the night’s three Sharon-inspired tunes gave guitarist Jon Nichols even more opportunity to dazzle the crowd than the Jimmy Page stuff did, as Nichols ably helped turned “Skin” into a fiery blues rock scorcher, and earned deafening praise while playing Slash’s parts on “Sister Heroine” and adding a new solo of his own that would make the Guns n Roses slinger proud.
Nichols, bassist Tom Lilly, and drummer extraordinaire Bill Ransom all took a break about an hour into the set to allow Ms Hart some solo time at the piano for the intimate “I Need a Hero” and “Take It Easy On Me” before Lilly joined her with an upright bass to give “Without Words in the Way” an almost jazzy flair, with Ransom and Nichols joining in halfway through with an acoustic guitar and a tiny jazz kit complete with brushes at the edge of the stage. “Sugar Shack” and “Baby Shot Me Down” followed in an unplugged jam where Ransom damn near stole the show with hand drums, pepper shakers, a tambourine, a cajon in place of a kick drum, and a freaking spiral trash cymbal. The obvious joy Ransom gets from playing adds more dimension to live performance than my silly words can describe, but it transmitted to the crowd and to Ms Hart so much that she rewarded Ransom with a sloppy kiss to the cheek, and I can think of no better way to illustrate the love this foursome has for both music and each other. It was nearly as gratifying as hearing Ms Hart introduce that latter tune by shouting “my mom keeps marrying these knucklehead dudes!”