It’s been four years since Beth Hart and guitar legend Joe Bonamassa released their acclaimed album Seesaw. Black Coffee, their third studio collaboration, sees them working with producer Kevin Shirley and once more delving into the archives to record a stellar collection of R & B classics. There are some tracks you may know and others that will be a welcome sonic epiphany.
Just Like That, taken from Edgar Winter's White Trash album sets the standard for what follows. With a scuzzy guitar refrain, a brass section that hits you sideways and a rock meets Stax fusion in the production, it's clear early on that this is an album so hot you could cook your dinner on it. Recorded in just five days, the session was gruelling and challenging for all involved, yet the album feels loose and often takes on the energy of a live performance. Shirley’s production glistens and is as polished as Bonamassa’s playing. On the occasions when he matches the rawness of Hart's vocal the whole album lifts up a notch.
Damn Your Eyes is a stunning example of these virtuosos at work. It’s a sublime version of the Etta James song that features musicianship so beautifully inflammatory that it will leave you spellbound. A cover of the Tina Turner/Humble Pie classic Black Coffee is where Hart really gets her mojo working. The track is imbued with the power of Steve Marriot but has the edgy soul of Elkie Brooks. One of the strengths of the album is Lullaby of the Leaves, a stunning rendition of the Ella Fitzgerald track that's delivered with the passion we have come to expect from the first lady of modern blues. The final turbulent minutes wrench us out of a gentle slumber and throw us into a broken dream (Python Lee Jackson reference fully intended). Saved has the spirit of a New Orleans’s Mardi Gras with the sass of classic gospel. It’s an uplifting addition to the album and another track where Bonamassa's playing never stops to touch the floor. A cover of Lucinda Williams' Joy has a defiant groove that owes as much blues rock as it does to soul music. The sultry track Addicted, originally by Austrian band Waldeck draws parallels to Amy Winehouse in terms of its smokey vocal style. It adds a slice of the contemporary to the album and turns the misty Parisian tones of the original to a insatiable album closer.
Hart credits Bonamassa for helping her step out of her comfort zone and giving her the confidence to stretch herself creatively. She needn't worry: if this is the sort of vocal performance she gives when she's on unfamiliar ground then she should take up permanent residence in the unknown.
Black Coffee is an consummate example of how modern blues should sound. Despite having equal billing it's Beth Hart's vocals that are the clear star of the show with Bonamassa's playing confidently underpinning the album. Here is an record that's never tepid or pedestrian even in more restrained moments. Like it's namesake it's best enjoyed strong, unadulterated and should come with a warning on the packaging: caution, contents might be hot.
Groupie Rating 5/5