The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester ~ There are some artists whose name and reputation precedes them, and when they tour, you hope you’re the one that gets chosen to go and review it. Such is the case with Beth Hart and this year my luck was in and so on a cold night in March, I head off to Manchester‘s premier venue, The Bridgewater Hall.
Having braved said cold, we are in need of warmth, and that’s where the Support comes in. It’s an onerous task perhaps, opening for Beth Hart because her audience will be quite discerning, bearing in mind who she is, but Connor Selby has previously opened for Pearl Jam and The Who and been voted Young Artist of the Year in the UK Blues Awards in 2020, 2021 and 2022 and should, therefore, be more than up for the challenge.
It’s a subtle set opening with ‘Falling in Love Again’ and it gains Manchester’s attention nicely. It appears he’s on good form tonight as he promotes his self-titled album - which has just been released as a deluxe edition with four additional tracks. ‘I Can’t Let You Go’, and The Man I Ought To Be’ quickly follow, but he saves his best track until the end and finishes strongly with ‘Emily’.
It was all very short and sweet really but it’s good to know that Selby returns to Manchester on the 14th of May, at Gullivers, this time with a full band and on this brief showing it’ll be well worth a look.
Now, when you tell people that you’re going to see Beth Hart, an awful lot of them want to tell you about the experience you’re about to have, “it’s always a blistering opening”, “she’ll always walk through the auditorium on the first song”, etc. etc. but on this occasion, it would appear that Hart has decided to turn everything on its head. In a change to the usual programme, Hart appears on stage solo, sits at the piano, and opens with a thoroughly moving version of ‘Hear My Prayer’.
This catches everyone completely off-guard and I hear those around me say that they’ve never seen that kind of opening before ! ! However, it’s no sooner over and Hart is off the stage, strutting in the aisles like she owns them and embracing all of Manchester for all they’re worth - fist bumps and selfies aplenty, all to ‘Tell Her You Belong to Me’. It would appear that normal service has resumed.
Back on stage, for song three and Hart appeals for the crowd to, and I quote, “don’t throw shit” as she launches into When the Levee Breaks / Dancing Days, taken from last years ‘A Tribute to Led Zeppelin’ album which hits hard and leaves you under no illusions that the show has properly begun. The subtleties - for the moment - are over.
Now, we breathe for a moment whilst Hart tells us that she went to a karaoke / drag show last night, where someone saw fit to suggest that she looks like a serial killer, which she thinks is as good an introduction to ‘As Good as it Gets’, as is necessary. She also tells us that it was this tune that got her complained about by the BBC as there is the odd ‘obscenity’ contained within (and there is, too), which they had missed - despite the amount of airplay they’d already given it. She then tells us about her first experience in a church, the kind where you can get up and dance, a Baptist church, all of which became the inspiration for ‘Spirit of God’, but “a really fast version of it though, so apologies to those who like the slow version in the album”. She needn’t have worried. Nobody objected. In fact, it was a greatly appreciated.
Beth decides that the time is now right to bring it down a little, and more home truths are told as she introduces a song about being bad. Hart explains that she’s “been in therapy since she was seven and the Doc said to me ‘you don’t come to me to be something different, you come to accept who you are” - wise words from a man who apparently sings punk rock karaoke on YouTube. Dr. Appleton is the man, ‘Bad Woman Blues’ is the tune, which at one point leads us into a false sense of security, with a break that hangs long enough for us to applaud - but the band are not finished and Jon Nichols kicks in with a blistering guitar solo that just blows you away. Oh my. Oh how Manchester loved it especially when it headed straight into ‘War in My Mind, which must have been on everybody’s “I hope she plays this” list, judging by the applause that followed? They were not disappointed.
Those that are following the tour are seeing something quite different tonight as the set list is bares little to what has gone before. The most surreal moment of the night, however, is when Hart shifts from the piano and dons, a unicorn outfit - I kid you not – and tells the story of a house that she and her husband rented in their early days together, one which they couldn’t do up because they were just renting, and everybody thought it was haunted. It inspired ‘The Ugliest House on the Block’ - which really would freak out the BBC, because the lyrical obscenities weren’t hidden at all, in fact they were very much front and centre. Billy Bragg would’ve been proud.
Hart is supported tonight by Jon Nichols (guitar), Tom Lilly (bass) and Bill Ransom (drums), but they take their leave for the moment, whilst Hart performs a heartfelt rendition of “a song about recovery and addiction” and if this is you, she advises that “there are people out there who can help you”. ‘Leave the Light On’ has some of the hardest hitting lyrics of the evening, but all’s it does, is bring everybody closer together and Hart receives a huge amount of love and understanding and a standing ovation long enough for everybody to be able to clear the lumps from their throats.
The rest of the band softly return and the four of them sit front and centre for a sublime acoustic session. It only takes a couple of bars for everyone to recognise ‘Sugar Shack’ with vocals and bongos playing and teasing each other throughout. Hart explains that she’s been running late with shows and she’ll forgive anyone who has to leave early - which might be a few when you consider the cost of the car parking, but it would be foolish to do so. ‘Baby Shot Me Down’ is heaven before an Etta James cover of ‘Sunday Kind of Love’ leads us into our final song, about the ‘Fat Man’, “who wasn’t fat but he had all the drugs on him”, in and around MacArthur park, where she grew up. It’s said that anything can be turned into a song if the talent is there and Beth has more than enough to prove that it is a true statement.
We should be done, by all accounts, but the lights stay down and we’re being led into our second false sense of security of the night - and you can’t have a soft ending can you ?
Well, no, of course not. It’s a haunting melody that starts off ‘No Quarter / Babe I’m Gonna Leave You’ and it sees guitars switched from electric to acoustic mid-way through for one of the powerful tunes of the night delivered with such powerful vocals it shows why Beth Hart is separated out from everyone else out there. She is a supreme talent and is surrounded by a trio of musicians that know her every move and play their part to perfection. This was a pleasure to experience and may the next time not be too far away.
Written for Rock at Night Magazine
Full set of images coming soon...