Friday, February 25, 2022

Beth Hart - A Tribute To Led Zeppelin

What’s the point of this album?
The story goes that one day during the recording of Beth Hart’s last album, 2019's outstanding War In My Mind, when Hart gave a spur of the moment rendition of ‘Whole Lotta Love’.  Her producer, Rob Cavallo, was so impressed he suggested she do a complete Zeppelin album.  Hart said no, on the grounds that she’d need to be at her most enraged to deliver the necessary vocals. Whether being incandescent is a must to sing all of these songs is a moot point (‘Rain Song’, anyone?), but after living through Covid for a while, Hart decided she was pissed off enough to go for it.
Which is all very interesting, but it doesn’t really answer my question.
Beth Hart gets ready to bring it on home
Pic by Roxanne de Roode
Tribute albums come in different shapes and sizes.  Sometimes an artist will revisit the work of an earlier act, encouraging their own fans to follow them in a voyage of discovery.  Well let’s face it, that doesn’t apply here, ‘cause Zeppelin don’t need anyone’s help to be discovered.  Sometimes a gaggle of artists will come together to compile their distinct takes on tracks by the original – as actually happened a few years back on a tribute to Physical Graffiti put together by Mojo magazine, and quite good it was too.  Obviously that’s not happening here though, as it’s just Beth Hart and a core band, with no sprinklings of guests.  Or an artist could take the opportunity to reinterpret the work of their inspiration – if Beth Hart were to re-do Zep with a piano-led, stripped-back approach for example.  But that ain’t this album.  This is a collection of Zeppelin songs that remain the same, pretty much, without many detours or deviations.
Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying that A Tribute To Led Zeppelin is a “bad” album.  Beth Hart is too good a singer, and her supporting cast are too switched on, for that to happen.  In fact Hart often succeeds in channelling Robert Plant’s tones to an uncanny degree.  Witness the way she replicates Plant’s slipping and sliding phrasing on the brightly funky ‘The Crunge’, for example – though wisely she goes for a less anglicised conclusion about the “confounded bridge”.  And if Hart doesn’t depart much from the original template, the same is often true of the guitar work by producer Cavallo and Tim Pierce, very much following Jimmy Page’s lead in the post-bridge solo of ‘Whole Lotta Love’, and also in the solos on ‘Black Dog’ and ‘Good Times Bad Times’ to pick just three examples.  Oh yeah, and drummers Dorian Crozier and Matt Laug pay thorough homage to those signature Bonzo drum patterns, not least when ‘Stairway To Heaven’ takes flight.  That’s a critical step, I reckon, in terms of whether you opt to follow in the path of the originals, or go in search of a different road.
But if the overall vibe is essentially “Zeppelin Redux”, there is one significant point of difference, namely the excellent orchestral arrangements by David Campbell.  These are utilised across the piece, adding fresh textures and hues to good effect.  A notable example is the use of strings on the spooky segment of ‘Whole Lotta Love’, which becomes less electronic and more organic.  But strings aren’t the end of it.  Horns swell to herald the guitar solo on ‘Stairway’, and they pop up discreetly on ‘Rain Song’ too, blending with strings and piano in a beautiful arrangement that lives up to the classic original without gilding the lily.
There are a couple of so-called medleys in the form of ‘Dancing Days’ paired with ‘When The Levee Breaks’, and ‘No Quarter’ being partnered by ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You’, though neither instance surfaces any illuminating connection.  In the first case, in particular, ‘Dancing Days’ doesn’t so much segue into ‘. . . Levee’ as abruptly collide with it.  But ‘No Quarter’ piques the interest with John Paul Jones’ synthesizer piano part transposed to guitar, and Hart offering a less murky, creepy vocal than Plant's original.
Full marks to producer Rob Cavallo and engineer Doug McKean for the excellent sound throughout, typified by the clarity of ‘Kashmir’, filled out by the orchestra with some additional embellishments and depth, and with a top drawer vocal from Hart that underlines her capacity to handle this stuff.
I’m still left with that question though – what purpose does A Tribute To Led Zeppelin serve?  I dare say there’s a Venn diagram where ardent Beth Hart admirers and Zeppelin fanatics intersect, and they may salivate over it.  But while I enjoyed it well enough, it doesn’t offer enough fresh insights to make it a must-listen for the future.  That though, is perhaps nobody’s problem but mine.
A Tribute To Led Zeppelin is released by Provogue Records/Mascot Label Group on 25 February, and can be ordered here.

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