For the past two months, I've had May 15th marked on my work calendar with three words: Heartless Bastards — Orpheum. I didn't know the time of the show, the cost of the tickets or the opening act, just that I would be there. And so there I was, with my boyfriend in tow, a little before 8 p.m. on Tuesday night. Derek had never heard the Bastards before, and as we sipped our overpriced pre-show drinks from little plastic cups, he asked me what kind of music they played. "Blues rock," I said, grimacing. In an article I read about them in Stylus Magazine, the writer noted that in anything written about the Bastards, the word 'blues' or its variations — bluesy, blues-tinged — get used at least five times. Probably imagining Eric Clapton, Derek quickly gulped down his whiskey and coke, and murmured, "I'm going to need a couple more of these." I tried to explain that Heartless Bastards were different, that singer Erika Wennerstrom's voice was so distinctive that it elevated the entire band out of the morass of contemporary blues rock. I almost had him convinced and looking forward to the show when the opening act sauntered onto the stage.
These United States is a five-piece from "North Carolina, New York and Colorado" — as the Jesus-looking frontman Jesse Elliott explained to the crowd. Coming from such diverse locales, I expected a sound just as varied, but was disappointed. The five-piece was very good at what they did (that is, bluesy Americana hipster rock) but offered little that I hadn't heard before. The vocals reminded me of John McCauley (of Deer Tick), and the music at times recalled Phosphorescent's latest foray into upbeat country. Each song was well-crafted, intricate, tight — just without the risk that makes music, especially rock music, so exciting and invigorating. Others around me, however, did not seem to share my opinion, as they clapped and hooted throughout the set. Girls randomly cried out, "We love you, too!" Jesse's sardonic response: "But we didn't say we love you first." (This might have been the highlight of their set for me.)
A freezing, over-air conditioned 40 minutes after These United States cleared their gear, Heartless Bastards — singer Wennerstrom on acoustic and electric guitars, Jesse Ebaugh on bass, guitar and pedal steel, Dave Colvin on drums and Mark Nathan on lead guitar — rambled to their places before the substantially fuller audience that had moved from periphery seats to standing directly in front of the stage. From the first few notes, the difference between the night's bands was palpable. The Bastards' songs radiated sincerity, and with it, a domineering power stripped of any youthful, hipper-than-thou, bravado. They were bluesy, yes, but at the same time, surprised with moments of unhinged, forceful rock n' roll they drove the songs into — an intensity that is only hinted at on their first three studio albums, and mostly absent from their latest, the more subdued and lush Arrow, which they were touring to promote.
My issue with the Heartless Bastards — both live and on their records — is that a lot of the songs tend to sound the same, which makes it necessary to check the track titles so I know what I'm hearing. I didn't have this option at the show, so many of the songs blurred together, with only a few sticking out, like "Parted Ways" and "Hold Your Head High." Steady, driving tempos, sludgy yet catchy riffs, and fuzzed-out leads build the basic sonic foundation. It's what's layered over top that really makes the band and keeps their albums on my phone for months: Erika's voice. Courtney Love once called herself a force of nature, and I don't know a better way to characterize Wennerstrom's vocals. More dynamic live, her lows were robust and meaty, and her adamantine highs most likely could, if given the chance, cut through glass — not shatter it, but, like a laser, incise it. For a few songs, Dana Falconberry - -a noted singer-songwriter with a distinct voice of her own — joined the Bastards to sing back-ups. Erika obliterated her: all I could hear was the shimmering tambourine in Dana's hand.
At the request of one particular audience member who called for the song each time the music during the set stopped, the Bastards opened their encore with "All This Time," and then finished out the night with the first song Wennerstrom wrote with the band, "Running." As we left the Orpheum and thawed out on the walk back to the car, Derek commented, "You know that old saying that goes something like, 'I don't know what art is, or what makes something good, but I know what I like'? Well, I liked the Heartless Bastards." And I think that's the perfect way to sum up the entire night.
Tyler- I can't believe how talented of a writer you are. This article was beautifully…
Great interview! Give the interviewer a full time job! He's great!
The DJ was actually The Castle's very own DJ Tom Gold :)
Fabulous review Gabe! Too bad I missed it.