Beth Hart + Connor Selby @ Birmingham Symphony Hall – Thursday 9th March 2023


Review by Paul H Birch and photos by Martin Tierney

“The snow falls hard and don’t you know, the winds of Thor are blowing cold,” as we had out to the newly refurbished Symphony Hall. Greeting various friends, acquaintances, and later noting Move/ELO drummer Bev Bevan among those gathered here, we make our way to our seats and spend the next ten minutes pondering if the three rock-like columns hanging from a beam across the stage rear are in fact crocheted curtains. Either way, they remain serenely blue during this evening’s guest slot.

Connor Selby walks casually on stage, alongside him a lad decked out in 60s Carnaby Street gear, who goes by the name of Joe Anderton. They will, for the most part play semi-acoustic/guitars seated, performing tracks from Selby’s debut blues album (re-released in a deluxe edition and reviewed elsewhere at The Midlands Rocks).

Opening with the optimistic ‘Falling In Love Again’, their feet tapping as they play, Anderton’s shades have him resembling a young Michael Des Barres in To Sir, With Love, and one’s initially drawn to him visually, but when Selby begins to solo, clearly and impressively, his head raised from fretboard, his eyes focussed looking out at the healthy-sized audience gathered our focus evens out.

They play a slower mellow blues tune next, and the variation of accompaniment and melody between the two guitars continues to prove effective. Connor’s voice is both a little high in the mix, and pitched higher than on record, though the sound will settle more through the set. Lyrically, I’ve been impressed by his modern troubled man admissions in song, and ‘The Deep End’ is one such. A more Delta blues affair is next, then we get something of a highlight with ‘Emily’, his voice deepening suitably here, with Anderton on backing vocals. It’s a funky boogie rhythm, with some very Jimmy Page like chord shape runs thrown in. Upbeat, with a nice rock ‘n roll pitched solo, it’s a good number to end on, though in the intermission friends will note they felt the set a bit short. That stated, it was an impressive enough set for a sizable queue to establish itself at the merchandise stand and purchase signed copies of his CD.

As Thin Lizzy’s ’The Rocker’ plays over the PA, those eerily hanging draping columns have changed to a more passionate red colour. But then, it’s light’s out, applause goes up, and people still being led to their seats annoy others, as such parties will rudely do so throughout the ensuing set (Got a bladder problem? Don’t drink). Fortunately, up on stage is where the real action is.

On stride, a longer-haired, bearded Jon Nichols is on many guitars and a large bank of foot pedals, Bill Ransom to the rear wears a big smile and plays drums, while to the other side is Tom Lilly prowling about on bass, and double bass later. They’re the same band Beth Hart’s performed with here before, and one way or another have been with her a good twenty years or so. You can’t just put that down to an employer who actually pays on time, there’s more than a degree of loyalty there too, mutual respect, and the fact, that between them they achieve a far more fulsome sound than bands far larger.

There’s a moment of confused silence from the audience as the guitarists gather, their backs facing their drummer, then striking a collective sound spin out either side of the stage and Ms Hart walks on, waving her hand in the air to returning applause.

Wearing tight black strides, and boots to match, collectively they accentuate her height, a sparkly green halter-top taking care of upper garment attire. The lady is in a particularly active mood tonight, hardly keeping still; she’s also presumably been practising yoga, judging by some of the contortionist positions she gets herself into tonight, while seated on the floor. As the sultry soul of ‘Tell Her You Belong To Me’ careers out, Hart kneels at the edge of the stage, singing to those in the front rows, before leaping up to serenade those in the close circles either side.

Her voice is deep and rugged, like a wild cat purring it will soon begin roaring, hitting piercing notes while performing vocal gymnastics with delivered dexterity. But that’s for later, for now we focus on the embittered drive, passion and near-stalker declaration of her singing – It’s extemporised by a tortured, distorted guitar solo from Nichols.

“Thanks for coming!” she espouses, in between song greeting banter, “The sound here is incredible!” she notes, on why she returns to this venue. It’s not a one-sided conversation however, as the crowd are soon “whoa-whoahing!” and “yeah-h-h-ing!” back and forth with her, then halfway through next number ‘Waterfalls’. It comes across as surly AOR grunge not a million miles removed from Alannis Morrisette in tonight’s rendition, until the moment her voice swoops moving away from the deep gospel to better suit the harder rocking band sounds that now belt forth. Nichols plays left land trills turning to Ransom who takes tour round his kit before handing things back to the guitarist who solos.

Three songs in, and three guitars so far. I whisper to my better-half they’re possibly different tunings if not tonally different, rather than him showing off, but either way we lose count of how many different ones the roadie brings on through the set and dare not guess how much air-freight tax has had to be paid getting them here.

“God bless, you guys!” she calls out before going into how worried she was when made an offer to cover an album of Led Zeppelin songs, concluding with “Please don’t throw shit at me if you don’t like it!” before the band perform ‘When The Levee Breaks’.  Gesturing and part dancing from the mic stand, guitarist and bass player moving in circles either side of her, it’s a slower hard rocking-blues rendition, before igniting into the groove of ‘Dancing Days’ with her riffing-out vocally before they return conclude the main number.

Seating herself at the piano, white lights peel out and round out towards the audience a torch ballad blues ensues, with her singing Joe Bonamassa co-write “I’ll Take Care Of You” with duly-wrought passion.  As the guitar hits a high note, drums crash out loud, even as bass and piano stride gently leading the oncoming crescendo.

From here on we hit a sweet spot, with ‘As Good As It Gets’ being the evening’s highpoint for me; taking the best bits of those singer/songwriter/pianists from Carol Bayer-Sager to Leo Sayer, Elton John, Carole King and all points in between – It’s jingly-jangly, sassy with fast-talking cool rhyming jive, happy-go-lucky and full of sunshine in a way the rain that’ll greet us later outside sure as hell ain’t. In more than good spirits, her customary personal anecdotes and familial stories are low on the agenda this evening, but she touches base regarding how on learning that her 80-year-old mother’s third husband had left her, Hart and her sister planned to head out a deal with the old buzzard, but instead she wrote a bunch of songs. A crime de passion evoked in broad waltz time follows, band swinging hard and Hart issuing a hefty scream as the song reaches its apex.

The guys leave the stage, an acoustic guitar’s brought on stage, and seated on a stool, she talks about hooking up with her husband, Scotty, and eventually renting out a funky beat-up place that she fell in love with, before performing ‘The Ugliest House On The Block’ solo. Inspired lyrics, playing on her life-of-hard knocks neighbourhood with black humour, while reflecting more personalised self-esteem issues, but with acceptance of that. There’s a part calypso feel to the tune as played tonight, and again I’m reminded a little of Morrisette and bands like 4 Non-Blonds in terms of the musical irony.

She returns to the piano, rolling and a tumbling away as the band return, initially coming across somewhat Bon Jovi like before long ‘Bad Woman Blues’ is stomping out proud and loud under its own steam. Wiping sweat from her brow with a towel she offers another true story, describing her battle with rink and drugs, but how she met an “amazing woman” at a church who inspired her, before other events transpired. From this we get ‘War In My Mind’; an emotional drama, haunting and powerful in its performance, her voice deep and senatorial before wailing out to evoke grief. She jokes that same pastor had said it would be okay for her to “cuss” if it was in pre-written lyrics, but covid and Trump had annoyed her so much in recent years, and during their previous gig in Glasgow, she’d probably swore more than not, and apologised for doing so tonight, though non-one’s keeping score. Rather, we take in her piano solo prior to band coming in for another nightclub torched blues in ‘Love Is A Lie’. Feral like, with predatory revenge in mind, the number is potent, while Nichols’ somewhat innocent sounding guitar solo proves a poignant dichotomy.

Getting regular exercise, the band vacate the stage once more, and Hart tells us how she was inspired watching Bette Midler on TV, and wrote ‘We’re Still Living In The City’. Understated, despite a rather Broadway theatrical approach, Hart paints a verbal picture of the kind that calls to mind the work of unrelated writers Paul and Neil Simon. On this, the heavy-raunch virtuosity of her vocal range is put aside, and her voice laid bare to narrate the song. Having been told that last number was about snuggling up warm beside her husband, she admits not everything’s rosy and is about to sing one when she’s “pissed off with him”. Primarily, it transpires, about his stinking feet. It’s old school boogie, and quite amusing.

She welcomes Tom Lilly back on stage, as he places his double bass just off centre-stage, and leads a jazz-tailored intro to ‘Without Words In The Way’, a song she wrote for her father. The performance is stately, again allowing us to digest the depth of her lyrics. Returning in the dark, drums and guitar help play the tune out.

With a nudge from my left, it’s now we begin to take stock of Nichols’ acoustic guitar collection, and fortunately we can keep score of those, as “Matt” the roadie only brings on two this evening. Alongside drums, they kick in with an afro beat, Lilly watching while perched against double bass, Hart seated on stool shaking her head, then singing out the acoustic rocking ‘Sugar Shack’, incorporating rap and drum solo along the way – To be honest it went on a little too long or my mind kept getting distracted by audience members getting up to go the loo. “Sing “Yee-haw!” the lady on stage calls out and the cinematic ‘L.A. Song (Out Of This Town)’ is performed in a western boogie manner – Her larynx performing with such dexterity I’m perversely of the thought that she and Steven Tyler ought to duet on some big bellbottomed blues ballad  Hollywood blockbuster theme tune, then sing the devil out of it at the Oscars. Wishful thinking aside, she’s next lying down on the floor watching Ransom solo, Nichols starts playing a souled-out echo and cry-baby effect-driven ‘Voodoo Chile’ before the band lurch into a spaced-out dirty blues funk as Hart sings, seated on the floor her feet dangling over the stage singing direct to her audience, before turning back straight legs akimbo doing the splits as the band take this number to its climax.

Returning to encore, all four same to be as energised as when first came on. Hart stands with mic in hand, while Lilly attends to keyboards and they choose the path where no one goes, and attempt another Zeppelin cover in the heartlands where two of that number were born. ‘No Quarter’ plays a little fast, but Hart’s guttural rocking voice suits the interpretation. Lights spin out and around once more, as she rests a foot on a monitor front-of-stage, her eyes piercing into the audience with a wicked smile as she sings out gleefully “Walking side by side with Death!” then without respite the light and shade sonic attack of ‘Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You’ is unleashed, the singer pacing the stage with unrelenting vigour, before halting centre stage and a brief return to ‘No Quarter’ as it fades to grey.

Here are nods and thumb signals between Hart and band as they leave one final time; her having name checked them regularly through the set, as she has manager, road crew and husband. But now, she performs alone, one final number. Betting odds would have it be ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ and since she’s taken on Plant and Bonham tunes in their backyard, why not the number that got Christine McVie voted the UK’s Best Female Vocalist back in 1969.

However, sitting at the edge of the stage, feet dangling over it one minute, curled in yoga positions the next, she relates how she got off on watching a woman sing gospel tunes on Youtube. The lady refuses offers to perform live; just does so from her home, and neighbours record her on their phones. The a capella-sung hymn that follows is born of that Scottish Presbyterianism that took to America giving us Appalachian folk gospel traditions that were latterly married to the blues. This final song is ‘Walk Around Heaven’ a paean to God and the love and friendships made on that journey through life to get there. It’s far from everybody’s cup-of-tea, either theologically or musically, but what you can’t argue with is the vocal dexterity with she delivers it. Inviting the band back on stage for a final collective bow, spiritually warmed for the moment we leave to brave the elements.