If there is one thing everyone can agree upon about The Heartless Bastards show at Chicago’s Bottom Lounge, it is that it was a thoroughly sultry experience. Even with the AC on and the fans at full RPM the ambiance was decidedly sweaty. It was a July evening that called for cold beer, an occasional cup of ice, and some rock n’ roll.
The last two times the Heartless Bastards played Chicago was when they opened for Wolf Mother and then Lollapalooza, so it was nice to know that their fans would finally get to take them in without them being under the constraints and planning of others. The near capacity crowd was treated with a long set of near 2 hours that lasted into the morning hours. People left with wet shirts, but left happy.
In an atypical move the Heartless Bastards opened with a track from their first – and unquestionably most obscure – album, Done Got Old. Immediately they jump into their brand of stomping, swaggering blues based rock n’ roll, anchored by lead singer Erika’s powerfully resonant vocals and decorated with sharply honed guitar riffs. Immediately the heat-fueled tension in the crowd relaxes.
It takes one only a couple minutes to realize what exactly it is about this band’s live performances which entices people, and it’s the surprising robust – yet deeply emotive – vocals of Erika Wennerstromon. Yes they write really good, well varied, rock music and play it even better – but that’s not what your drawn to (even though it would be enough in most cases). The Heartless Bastards have the ear-catching ability of, while playing live, having the rhythm section sound album-like by being so succinctly in time, yet having the singing coming off so plainly & pleasantly live. The balance between sounding like your albums and decidedly live is a very tough line to walk for any band, lean one way and your song is sterile and vapid, lean the other the song loses meaning or becomes unprincipled. This line the Bastards walked well for this show.
Erika put her vocal talents on display most within their subdued, more western number, So Quiet. In this song (and a couple others) the lead guitarist becomes the fiddle player, Erika plays an acoustic and the drummer departs. And even when she sang in a hushed manner, and despite the fact that she has a short and small demeanor, when singing she commands the audience’s attention with a compelling, and somewhat intangible, force to be reckoned with.
Other highlights from the evening were The Mountain, when the bastards clearly demonstrate how one can incorporate a yowling steel guitar into an aggressive indie rock song, and Out at Sea, which the bastards played with an added emphasis on the swing-feeling within this song leaving the audience wondering if it should flash the devil horns or break out into the twist. Overall they played songs from all three of their albums and it would be a good bet to say very few – if any – of those attending left without hearing the songs they attended to hear.
It has been often said that a rock band will show their true talents in the slow songs, that anyone can be loud or fast. If this is the case then the Heartless Bastards will fair just fine, as their ability to play downtempo or all-out is equally great. But they also can claim to play everything else in between well also, the swing-rock song, the quasi-country number, the building rock song, the happy ones that make you want to dance. And all the while you have Erika there leading the way with a self-evident, Napaleon-like, musical momentum. Who wouldn’t follow along? These guys are for real.
By Sean Brna