Beyond the Blind
Vocal dynamo dashes her roller coaster demons to rock the spotlight again.
Don’t call it a comeback. But when Beth Hart joined Jeff Beck to unleash her raspy vibrato on the Etta James classic “I’d Rather Go Blind” during a Buddy Guy tribute at last year’s Kennedy Center Honors, it marked the singer’s rebirth on the U.S. stage after more than a decade away. A rising major-label star in the ’90s, Hart crashed and burned her bridges in a blur of substance abuse and mental illness.
“I don’t think you can call it a comeback when you were never there in the first place,” says the now-
sober Hart, 41, who earned a standing ovation from a Kennedy Center audience that included the Obamas and members of Led Zeppelin.
“It made me feel so proud of coming back from being so ill to not feeling all strung out and hating myself and scared of the world,” she says. “It was so wonderful for such a big show to feel that way, like a miracle in my life.”
That live rendition of “I’d Rather Go Blind” shines as a bonus track on Hart’s April release, Bang Bang Boom Boom, which showcases originals in more of a soul-blues vein than her previous rock efforts. And she’s riding a parallel outing in recently released Seesaw, her second collaboration with supportive guitar hero Joe Bonamassa, balancing a broad set of covers that span Billie Holiday and Tina Turner gems.
It’s all helped to set the stage for Hart’s return to the road in the U.S. after a decade of work in Europe. “I never dreamed of coming back to the States,” says the singer, whose band opens for the Rides—a new supergroup that includes Stephen Stills and Kenny Wayne Shepherd—on a tour that hits the Wilbur Theatre Sept. 7. “I so fell apart here that I think it was only natural that for years to come, I would be terrified to ever play here again. It’s kind of like going back in the lion’s den.”
Though it may seem perplexing for a vocalist of such volcanic intensity to lack confidence, Hart’s backstory reveals a mental and physical roller coaster. As a youth, she flipped between alcohol (“The only time I was drinking every day and being full-blown nuts was when I was 12 and 13”) and anorexia, escape outlets that resurfaced in her 20s, when alcohol abuse led to seizures on the road. Hart began taking the prescription drug Klonopin and slid into further addiction.
But the bane of her existence was an unmedicated bipolar disorder. Even after Hart turned her life around at the start of the new millennium, marrying her road manager and succeeding in rehab, she suffered an episode in her 30s that landed her in a psychiatric hospital for a month and a half. She finally started the right medication. “When you lean toward the mania, there’s grandiosity in the thinking and it’s all about ego and being in control, so the idea of being out of control is just unfathomable,” she says of her long refusal to treat the bipolar condition.
Hart’s travails are reflected in Bang Bang Boom Boom, from the brooding “Baddest Blues” to “Everything Must Change,” where she sings “Everywhere there’s light/In the dying start to fight,” nodding to her time in the psych ward. “When we are in illness, that too must change,” she explains. “Not because we get a break from God or anything, but because that’s just scientifically the way things go. What goes up must come down, and what goes down must come back up.”
Musically, Hart channels her knockout voice through blues, ballads, gospel, rock and swing on the new album, although she’s planning a more cohesive follow-up. “I love eclectic,” she says. “It represents life so much more than one idea.”
In turn, her concerts include flashes of her primal rock past. “The performance is dictated by the type of style,” she says. “When we’re doing a tune like [’90s hit] ‘LA Song,’ I’ll usually play that alone at the piano. If we’re doing something hard rock, I’ll be stomping, jumping and rolling around. I look at it like having multiple personalities. When I’m doing a particular song, that personality comes out.”
Beth Hart plays the Wilbur Theatre on Sept. 7.