Recently, lost in the wasteland of Facebook, I came across an ad that invited me to view a performance by a singer named Beth Hart at the Kennedy Center in 2012, part of a tribute to blues musician Buddy Guy.
I had never heard of Beth Hart. It turns out we have at least one thing in common: we’re both much better known in Europe and Scandinavia than in our home country of the United States. Go figure.
I will confess here to a heretical opinion: I really don’t like the blues very much. As a medium, I find it overdone and repetitive. I’ll go a step further and make a statement that will likely see me charged with some variant of racism: I especially dislike the blues when white people perform it. White man’s blues generally comes in two flavors, slow and fast, and beyond that there is practically no variation. These musicians are often technically perfect but utterly without feeling. Stevie Ray Vaughan aside, I will go far out of my way to avoid blues performances by yet more middle-aged white guys who think they’ve cut some kind of deal at the crossroads, but who are really just products of the years of lessons their middle-class parents were able to afford.
However, as any rational music lover knows, race itself plays no role in determining quality. The fact is, most musicians are mediocre. So what makes a musician great? Native talent of the individual accounts for some of it; cultural background accounts for some, too. And, with any type of music, the amount of emotion the performer puts into it is what seals the deal for me.
Here’s the performance that introduced me to Beth Hart: a cover of an Etta James tune, called “I’d Rather Go Blind.”
Listen to the level of emotion she puts into each syllable. I’ve never seen a singer pay this much attention to a song before.
I’ve also never been affected by a performance as strongly as this one. I began to cry almost immediately upon hearing her voice–not full-on sobbing, but the sort of slow leakage that signifies a disturbance somewhere down in the dark depths that really excellent music explores. It was the raw emotion she expressed that got me. I could feel every word, and not in a good way, necessarily. It hurt.
And that’s what the blues is really supposed to do. It’s not supposed to impress you with technical skill. It’s supposed to make you want to sit down on the floor and wail like a toddler.
Why haven’t I ever heard of her? I asked myself. I dug deep into the past, and I found a performance of a tune called “Am I The One,” which explained quite a bit:
This performance scared the shit out of me, as I imagine it would most people. Here, Beth is completely raw. She’s just animal energy, totally unfettered, and not coincidentally, she’s also lost in the grip of some kind of drug addiction. For me, this helps answer the question of why Beth Hart isn’t better known. This is not mainstream music, not for the faint of heart. To be blunt, Beth isn’t looking her best here, either. Leaving aside for the moment the ridiculously shallow standards we have for women who live in the public eye, she looks really sick: she’s too thin, and very out of it. This is not the kind of music you put on in the backgroundat a party. This is the kind of stuff you listen to when you want to go on a journey and face some demons. Beth isn’t your spirit guide, either. Here, she represents the demon itself.
But Beth got healthy again. She sought treatment for her bipolar disorder and her addictions, and has been clean since 2002. It shows. Here she is giving a performance that I’ve watched about a hundred times, just because of the shivers it gives me when she hits the crescendo, and which I think represents her at the second of her peaks:
I say ‘the second of her peaks’, because this level of talent will peak many times over the course of a career. The power of this woman’s voice is simply unparalleled. She is the strongest singer I’ve ever encountered. There are videos in which she belts out a number at the top of her lungs, lights a cigarette, and rips out another one… taking drags between verses. (Please do not try that at home.) It seems that the more she abuses her throat, the stronger it becomes. Listen to her doing Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love,” which requires absolutely massive vocal power to pull off convincingly:
I’m not necessarily a huge fan of all her work. For me, it’s her slow bluesy numbers that showcase her talents, and which affect me the most. The bulk of her discography is a little too mainstream for me, but I’m willing to overlook that out of respect for her contribution to American music. Now in her mid-40s, Beth still has a few decades of performing left in her, which is a very long time in the life of a performer. She will likely mellow, of course, but she will also continue to engage and amaze. I can’t wait to see what she does next.