Beth Hart + Kris Barras Duo, Birmingham Symphony Hall, Sunday 9th February 2020


Review by Paul H Birch.

Tonight, there are more faux blond females packed in the Symphony Hall than there are sheep wandering the Welsh valleys. Linda Ronstadt’s singing ‘You’re No Good’ over the PA, but I’m too much of a gentleman to comment, plus there’s someone at home who’d clobber me. Frampton’s up next with his solo studio rendition of ‘Shine On’ just as the lights dim and on strolls the Kris Barras Duo to healthy applause.

“Good evening, Birmingham,” he calls out as they settle down on chairs while rustling up a punchy little tune on their acoustics. Here from the stalls, Barras appears a lot less menacing than one expects for a former champion cage-fighter, but I’m not going to be the one to tell him otherwise.

What also surprises are the clearly sung vocals coming from his raspy throat. First time listeners being able to appreciate the song’s intent and side with him conspiratorially. The wide-brimmed harmonies also help on this countrified boogie stomp, supplied as they are by Josiah J Manning who aside from adding acoustic rhythm, has one shoe off to play bass pedals and is tapping out a stomp with the other.

The first few numbers finds Barras moving a capo up and down his own guitar’s fretboard while being almost embarrassed at playing acoustically, telling us all about his full band’s power. He needn’t, the harmonies are rich throughout the set and when he solos on the steel string guitar lets out a lovely pinched tone. This is evidenced on their take of latest single What You Get’, now evoking Roy Harper by way of Zeppelin. ‘When I See You Smile’ actually convinces more than the album version, and the soul rock of ‘Vegas Son’ is substituted with an upbeat Cajun flavour and of bluesy soling.

At this point my attention drifts momentarily, but naturally, as new female arrivals sit down to my left. But more on this pair latter, there’s a slow slide guitar playing out on stage as they begin to cover The Allman Brother’s ‘Midnight Rider’ – Whether intended or not the tribal rhythm played out evokes the feeling you’re listening to a tale about a native American Indian rather than an outlaw cowboy, and it works sweetly. They end with an upbeat tune, riff based, changing tempos and a solo that builds to a crescendo.

The last half hour or so has been entertaining and while I’ll check out the Kris Barras band in all their electrified glory in due course, I wouldn’t be upset if the Kris Barras Duo passed this way again in the near future.

The intermission is just long enough for people to stretch their legs for as lights go down with funked-gospel music coming out of the sound system guitarist Jon Nichols, bass player Tom Lilly and drummer Bill Ransom walk on to take up their positions. Nichols strikes out staccato chords, punched into place by the rhythm section as on strolls Beth Hart, in sparkly glitter black halter-neck top, red loon pants, high heels and tattoos. She sashays and dances, working her way toward the microphone stand centre stage and proceeds to hold it like a weapon, as she purrs then soars vocally with accented precision telling us “Love is a lie!” as the stage lights power up to full force.

Number over, she’s sitting down on the edge of the stage, her feet dangling in front of the front row. She begins telling us stories about her family, and how her “sister Susan and niece Jude” are here tonight. It transpires they’re sitting next to me, and will prove to among her biggest fans as they whoop and holler appreciatively, in between dancing the night away.

Meanwhile, over on stage they’re no more than a couple of bars into the walking bass nightclub jazz blues of ‘Why Don’t You Do Right’ before Ms. Hart has snuck down and is walking through the stalls. Hot on her heels is Scott, “This is my husband” she calls out for those who’ve not seen her do this before, with Mr Guetzkow, also her road manager ensuring her safety.

It’s like some gender switch on the annual Sadie Hawkins Day gag played out in the classic American comic strip Li’l Abner. Singing and talking she works her way up to the rear stalls, returning down the other side, then remembering her sister comes back towards us and hugs them as on stage Nicols solos away. There’s no rush here, because a minute later she standing at the front of the stage having selfies taken with fans before tip-toeing on her heels up the steps with a bunch of flowers in her hand to finish singing the song.
Blue lights flicker over the stage as she perches herself on a stool to deliver a haunting rendition of ‘Your Heart Is As Black As Night’. It’s the spaces the band leave between the notes they play here that give it a tense atmosphere of expectation throughout.

“Each night we try and make a new set” she tells us sitting at her piano, and we are entertained by a big band sounds from a tight little outfit, that begins to deliver acid-lite funk like an updated Steely Dan/Moby Grape conglomeration. Before long we really get into ‘Bottle of Jesus’ with a high noted riff that rocks while she rolls in counterpoint on piano, her voice pitched higher but earthier on this number as the caustic lyrics ring out, with many among the audience singing along.

One’s natural inclination would be to keep up the up tempo groove following this but she opts for ‘War In My Mind’ played out as a Gothic murder ballad, white lights emit from stage rear, turning as they flow out over the front rows, the music becoming dark, jazzy while building passionately in a classical manner towards its climax.
A voice from the audience tells her to turn up her microphone and the audience raises its hands voting in agreement as she exclaims: “Oh, thank you, that is just what a singer wants to hear!”

Beth Hart

Hart’s past clings to her present. Substance dependencies, a latterly diagnosed bi-polar condition, and a dysfunctional family history. They inform the songs she writes, not only acting as catharsis for her but many of her fans. Concerts with her can at times feel like a self-help group. Tonight, she can be a little hyper, while correctly proscribed medicine is doing its work her husband is never far off in the wings ensuring she’ll be okay.
She talks about the breaking down of barriers between her and her audience, the help and bonds it forms, beyond showbiz glitz. More personally she talks about family members, the loss of a sister, dedicating the next one to her niece present. ‘Goodbye Sister’ follows with a classic rock solo pouring out as she extemporises vocally towards the song’s conclusion.
Syncopated piano and some sharp snazzy drumming is next via ‘Bad Woman Blues’ and the band slip away off stage, leaving Hart seated centre stage, an acoustic bass in hand as anyone with an inkling of musical knowledge is impressed by the mixture of arpeggios, double noted chords and melody lines that encompass ‘Isolation’. It is warm, eerie and unusual, as is the following ‘Spiders In My Bed’ with its evocative melody and a lovely vocal.

The solo performance continues as she returns to the piano, dedicating ‘I Need A Hero’ to her husband and the following ‘Sister Dear’ to the lady beside me. She breaks down, comes off stage to hug her sister, who then joins on stage sitting beside her as she completes the song.

‘Baddest Blues’ follows, chunkier, jazz chorded a little of the torch ballad about it as the band return. “Has it been a little too slow for you?” she asks, “Get up for me!” With a euphoric rush of guitar chords and drums rolling out before rocking some scrunchy blues rock as a handful of young women down the front get up and dance – Well they might actually be school girls, putting an end to any thoughts that is music for specific generation. Standing centre stage, singing and rapping with the audience to ‘Monkey Back’ she is sassy and funky.
Then we’re back to another new set piece as the musicians places themselves to the front of stage, Nichols on acoustic, Bill Ransom on percussion seated alongside Hart, Lilly standing with double bass at hand. What can only be described as Brazilian blues rock follows before they follow with an acoustic version of ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’. The performance is gentle and less overwrought than many versions of this number can be. Here is clear, warm, and embracing as she injects emotion. About her the band look suitably beatifically content with the performance they are delivering.

And that’s it. Off stage they go collectively to hefty applause. There’s some wait before Hart returns to sit at her piano, with Lilly on double bass. “Will it be a good review?” her sister suddenly asks down my ear. “I’ve got to look after my sister!” she smiles, her eyes sussing me out. On stage ‘With Only Words In The Way’ plays out, the rest of the band returning a couple of verses in. I expect another number but that’s it. We’re left wanting more.
Tonight, has been an evening of set pieces but with some unexpected songs introduced. Less showbiz, and that’s a slight niggle I had when I saw her live previously. This is more about sharing. The audience could well be those who once upon a time picked up Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill, and now feel the need for something that again speaks to their mature form. If so Beth Hart fits the bill.

“Don’t write about her unruly relatives” exclaims Sister Susan. “Bloody Yanks coming over here telling us what to do!” I retort jokingly, and thankfully she laughs as I bid her goodbye, George Harrison mocking us over the PA with ‘Here Comes The Sun’ as we head out into Storm Ciara.