My first substantial impression of Beth Hart came during the summer of 1999. She was the third-billed performer (behind, if memory serves, Paula Cole and Goo Goo Dolls) on an episode of VH1’s Hard Rock Live, and her single, “L.A. Song,” was in the midst of its run as a modest hit at Adult Top 40 radio. After an unremarkable performance of the requisite hit ballad, Hart stood up from the piano and launched into “Am I The One,” a cut from her debut album Immortal. Unprepared for the higher profile earned from “L.A. Song” and her sophomore album, Screamin’ For My Supper, Hart had developed an addiction to Klonopin. Emaciated, wild-eyed, and generally looking like dug-up death, Hart proceeded to deliver a blues—in the purest “Kenny Wayne Shepherd wouldn’t know what hit him” sense of the term—performance the likes of which I’d never seen before, nor have I seen or heard since. She wasn’t just wrestling with personal demons in that performance, she outright flayed those demons on stage in front of God and everybody. Like Jeff Buckley at his most transcendent and sounding like Janis Joplin reincarnated with Stevie Nicks’s high-speed vibrato, Hart turned the act of singing into an out-of-body experience, something both intensely physical and tangibly metaphysical.
At the commercial break, I immediately got into my car and went to buy copies of both Immortal and Screamin’ For My Supper. Though each album contained a few memorable tracks, not even the studio version of “Am I The One” hinted at Hart’s greater capacities. When her follow-up single, “Delicious Surprise” (currently climbing the country charts, thanks to a completely lifeless cover by the thin-voiced Jo Dee Messina), failed to build on the success of “L.A. Song,” Hart, like so many artists who never make that final big push into stardom, faded into obscurity, at least in the U.S. Her personal trials continued unabated during this time—she was dropped by her label, shrank to 98 pounds, and ended up in jail for a DUI—and I wondered if I would ever hear of her again, let alone if she’d ever release something that lived up to that singularly jaw-dropping performance.
On a tip from a friend I didn’t even know liked Hart, I found out that, in fact, she did release something worthy of her phenomenal talent. While Billboard rightly referred to her as “the stuff of icons,” her 2003 album Leave The Light On did not find the massive audience it deserved. Chronicling her struggle toward sobriety, Hart produced an album of such confrontational, uncompromising honesty and gritty, hard-living detail (after all, she’d been addicted to various drugs since she was 11 years old) that it was even more astonishing a statement for its fundamental optimism. If only two of its tracks (“Broken And Ugly” and the wry “Monkeyback”) reflected what an unparalleled blues singer Hart is, Leave The Light On was nonetheless a representation of the raw, exposed nerve endings that make up Beth Hart and her music. Just two years old, it’s an album that sounds like classic rock, and if it had any real flaw, it was that Hart still sounded restrained by the studio recording process.
Live At Paradiso takes care of that.
Recorded in 2004 at a show in Amsterdam while on a wildly successful European tour, Paradiso draws its 13 performances from a DVD released in March 2005, and it is the first time since that one-off, mid-afternoon VH1 show that the enormity of that voice has been done justice. The tracklist is unassailable, including the best songs from her first two releases (a nine-plus minute rendition of “Am I The One” and the title track from Immortal; “L.A. Song,” “Delicious Surprise,” “Mama,” and “Get Your Shit Together” from Screamin’ For My Supper), the previously mentioned rockers plus the three singles (“World Without You,” “Lifts You Up,” and the title track) from Leave The Light On, and two choice covers. Even on the relatively subdued, Adult Top 40-ready songs like “Leave The Light on” and “L.A. Song,” Hart goes for broke in her deliveries, singing as though entirely unbeholden to constructs of what conventional singing should sound like.
But the bulk of Paradiso consists of harder-driving rock numbers that give Hart ample opportunity to belt, growl, and snarl until there’s not much room to doubt that she’s the best rock and blues singer alive. She reinvents Randy Newman’s “Guilty,” and when she wails, “I just can’t stand myself,” she does so in a way that channels what sounds like a lifetime worth of pain. That’s the kind of singer Beth Hart is, and she’s the only singer I’ve heard since Janis Joplin who can lay bare such intimate emotion without making a person feel like an eavesdropper for having heard it. And, whether it’s the self-deprecation of “Broken And Ugly” or the undiluted desperation of “Am I The One,” there’s at least one such moment on every track on Paradiso, and the run of songs from “Lifts You Up” to “Mama” is essentially one protracted gut-check. And then there’s the album-closing cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love,” which Hart delivers so aggressively that it makes the entirety of Sleater-Kinney’s brilliant The Woods sound demure and outdated in its sexual politics.
Hart’s band skillfully manages the task of keeping pace with her (guitarist Jon Nichols, in particular, gets plenty of room to show off), though their arrangements do occasionally lack her fearlessness. And, as is the case with most live albums, the audience banter is of limited charm. The sheer joy Hart takes in performing for and interacting with an appreciative crowd, however, keeps that banter from becoming tiresome at least through the album’s 17th listen. I won’t vouch for it beyond that. The power of Hart’s music, on the other hand, remains fully intact every time. Finally, gloriously, Beth Hart’s recorded performances match the weight of her best-written material. “They’d call me an icon,” she sings in “Delicious Surprise.” Billboard got it right. And with Live At Paradiso, it’s high time that everyone else got it too.