This past week the Heartless Bastards released their first album since ‘The Mountain’ in 2009, titled ‘Arrow’. It being released in conjunction with Valentines Day must have been a mere coincidence, which is ascertained by the fact that the Bastards also played Chicago’s Lincoln Hall that same evening and Erika Wennerstrom, their lead singer and fearless leader, told the crowd she never really liked the holiday at all. Regardless, many in the audience that evening took full advantage of the situation by bringing a date to the show. And it’s safe to say the ladies probably left the venue very content that evening.
Lincoln Hall turned out, as expected, to be a great place to catch this band. It being a two tiered mid sized venue with great sight lines, stellar modern sound (there is a ample well placed sound proofing), and isn’t obnoxiously packed when it sells out – which it easily did on this evening. It was very nice to see them again in this city as the headliner, the last few times they played Chicago it was in larger venues and to open for larger acts (The Drive by Truckers and Wolf Mother). So not only did one not get see a full set, but they understandably slightly altered their set to match the audience’s mood. But us fans of theirs would rather hear what they want to present unfiltered by other concerns.
The Bastards began the evening with the first track off of their new album Marathon. This is a number that begins just with Erika and her guitar, but slowly builds up inertia, energy and volume. It never fully plumes into full blow rock, but instead evolves into a thickly-restless blues sound. It announces some of what is to come, but doesn’t show the hand, making it a good kick off number.
The Heartless Bastards’ Parted Ways
The band seemed to be in tip top shape on this evening. Erika (the aforementioned lead singer, guitarist, and song writer) is clearly the linchpin of this band’s success, even though her fellow musicians have been with her for a while and deserve high praise, she is the the bearer of the band’s potency. Much of this has to do with her dynamic and accomplished song-writing, but any fan of theirs will tell you that the quintessence of their beautiful sound lies in her vocals. Erika has a powerful singing voice. It’s something akin to thick molasses that has a sharply-sweet taste, there is a high viscosity to it, but it doesn’t dampen her ability to truly delight the ear. She also has the ability to push her voice into a second register, a second phase, where her tones becomes scarily pure and the voluminous energy extrapolates into a new sound. Its almost like the effect of when someone yells through a cone-shaped speaker, how the sound seems to centralized and the energy focused toward a static direction, giving it a unique strength. And while she doesn’t sing like this on every song, she can conjure this effect up with just a microphone, and the result is always pleasingly arresting – even when you know it’s coming. And on this night she was, yet again, in perfect form. How she keeps her voice so potentially pure and powerful, day in day out, is really a marvel.
The crowd was treated to her powerful vocals on such numbers this night as Only for You, and Simple Feeling (the 6th and 7th songs of the night). As the former is a side-stepping swaggering blue/pop/rock song, and the latter is a more chaotic punk’ish rock n roll song, one can see how Erika can use her prowess to different ends. That was another thing on display on this evening, the band’s dexterity. They played songs like Gray, off of their first album, which is a more stripped down fun-loving punk number. Then there was The Arrow that Killed the Beast, the quasi titled track from their new album, which is a somber and reflective western number. It features more slide guitar, and was a quiet and down-tempo break. And yet, while they enjoy genre jumping, you can always tell it’s a Heartless Bastards song, as that’s what competent vocalists can do for a band.
As their new album came out literally the day of the show, not many people were overly familiar with the new stuff. So the band kept the new material to only about half of the songs performed, which seemed like a wise balance to this author. Into The Open, one of the best tracks off of their LP ‘All This Time’, was an older song that was well played and well received on this night. The seemed to play it at a slightly slower pace than the album version, which worked well with the piano intro as well as the raucous place that the song builds to. Of course one of the old songs they went back to, The Mountain, was an undeniable highlight from the evening and one of the last songs they played. The sanguinely stomping beat, the soaring steel guitar, the enchanting vocals, the wonderful crescendo. That was the moment when the crowds pleasure may have peaked, and for good reason.
This was an all together a concert experience of high quality. The Heartless Bastards are prime examples of the theory that live bands are at their best when they play songs in a manner that doesn’t sounds exactly the same as the album versions, but that do not deviate too far either. Of course, then there is Erika and her commanding voice that always seems to be at it’s best. Let’s just hope they are completely done with opening up for other bands, for they are deserving of the spot light all by themselves!
Written by Sean Brna
The Heartless Bastards’ The Mountain