I set out to write a quick review of Black Coffee, which sees singer-songwriter and blues-rock powerhouse Beth Hart and guitar hero Joe Bonamassa reunite for another epic collection of ten soul gems that encompass Hart’s breath-taking vocals and Joe’s masterfully expressive guitar. The album, which was recorded as live takes with minimal layering and production from long term producer Kevin ‘The Caveman’ Shirley at the helm was so good, I am pleased to say that I failed.
This album is TOO good to just dash down a few lines and move on, it deserves to be savoured and listened to over and over. Black Coffee is a masterclass in Soul music of epic proportions, covering almost 70 years of soul legacy, I am grateful for the education I have received whilst listening and writing.
Black Coffee digs deep into the soul catalogue where Beth and Joe honour and re-imagine songs from Edgar Winter, Etta, James, Ike & Tina Turner/Steve Marriot, Ella Fitzgerald, Lil’ Green, LaVern Baker, Howlin’ Wolf, Lucinda Williams and Waldeck. It's the perfect alchemy brought about when talented people who love their work and know their field inside out put their hearts and souls on the line and share what truly matters to them. This magnificent work was recorded in just 5 days at 'Studio at the Palms' in Las Vegas during August 2016. Shirley says that “We try and find a different spin on it; originally, it was about trying to find some songs that people didn’t know at all and bring them back to people’s attention.”
Digging into the background of this magnificent trinity of contemporary music is like reading a who’s who of Rock and Roll! These guys have worked with the likes of BB King, Led Zeppelin, Slash, Jeff Beck, Deep Purple, Eric Clapton and Iron Maiden. Their working relationship thrives on the way they challenge each other to strive for new heights, they take pleasure from pushing each other out of their comfort zones. “They are always out of their comfort zone in the studio; this session especially wasn’t comfortable,” Shirley reveals. “This isn’t a summer in the grass session, just a couple of chords; this is people digging in. Everyone left feeling totally challenged, and at the end of the day, completely enthusiastic.”
The Album kicks off with “Give It Everything You Got”, taken from 1971’s Edgar Winter’s “White Trash” album. “I don’t think that’s a song a lot of people know; it’s an old soul classic, but it’s not really one you might expect,” says Shirley. It isn’t a track I have encountered before, but it's a damn fine rendition with a rich horn sound and cascading guitar forming the perfect backdrop for the most astonishingly raw and powerful vocals from Beth Hart.
“Damn Your Eyes” was Etta James’ comeback record and opens with Bonamassa’s soulful guitar and turns the mood on its head, showing a different side to Hart’s vocals. “Lullaby of the Leaves” was sung by Ella Fitzgerald in 1964; “For me I’m able to explore the kind of music I have always admired from afar,” reveals Bonamassa. “But you don’t want to hear me singing Ella Fitzgerald…” he explained as Hart joins in. “I would never do Ella Fitzgerald without being with Joe, the things I get to do with [Joe] are things I grew up always wanting to do, but never believed I could.” The pleasure that they take in performing every track oozes from the very grooves of the record.
The gospel flavoured R&B, "Saved", originally performed by LaVern Baker, has been covered by Elvis Presley, Brenda Lee, Billy Fury, Elkie Brooks and The Band, amongst others. It's a full throttle, tongue-in-cheek moment, written from the perspective of someone who had lived a fast, loose life but is then "saved" and is now standing on a corner preaching to the passers-by. They take an altogether different mood on "Soul on Fire", paying homage to Baker’s first ever solo release. "Why Don’t You Do It Right?" was performed by Peggy Lee in 1942. The sultry punch of Lucinda Williams’ "Joy" has a totally irresistible groove. “We have tracks like that and I love the energy,” Shirley adds. "Addicted" is taken from the 2007 trip-hop leaning album by the Austrian trio, Waldeck, which Shirley came across whilst on holiday and “shazamed” it.
This album is a live perfomance wrappered by studio quality production. It has depth, richness and most importantly, energy; “It’s really predicated on the vocals,” Bonamassa explains. “We can’t cut these tunes without Beth singing and once she starts singing, it’s the glue that inspires us to get the extra 10% out of the playing. If we just cut them and sang later, the magic wouldn’t be there.”
Beth Hart underlined the value of that live connection: “There’s nothing like being able to sit there live and see Joe, seeing the drums, seeing the bass, being able to see Kevin [Shirley]. I can feel the vibrations, it changes the whole thing.” she continues. “It works the best. In the old days, that’s how they did it; bad ass singers and bad ass musicians would have a couple of hours to get a whole record done.”
The Full Track list is:
1 Give It Everything You Got
2 Damn Your Eyes
3 Black Coffee
4 Lullaby Of The Leaves
5 Why Don't You Do Right
7 Sitting On Top Of The World
9 Soul On Fire
11 Baby I Love You (bonus track)
Black Coffee is released on January 26th by Provogue (Europe) and J&R Adventures (US & Canada)
Review by Pete Yeomans