During a recent stop in Cleveland, Heartless Bastards singer-guitarist Erika Wennerstrom read a shocking concert review in the newspaper.
Fellow band The Eagles Of Death Metal had suffered a hostile reception while opening for Guns `n’ Roses. Axl Rose even referred to them as “The Pigeons of S—- Metal” on stage.
“I was like, `Oh my god,’” Wennerstrom remembers. “I was actually shocked that they were unreceived that much. ... I was amazed that the whole stadium sort of booed.”
Weeks later, she can’t help but express humility and indirect relief ... that it wasn’t her.
“I’m sure that could happen to us,” she says. “I think we’ve been very fortunate so far.”
It’s hard to imagine any audience reacting poorly to the Heartless Bastards, which also includes bassist Mike Lamping and drummer Kevin Vaughn.
But Wennerstrom’s reaction says something about her band.
The rock trio with the big-voiced singer has received lots of praise in four short years. But these Bastards don’t seem to take it to heart. This is a Cincinnati blue-collar act that tours relentlessly, splits a hotel room and eats at Cracker Barrel, which is what Wennerstrom is doing during this phone call.
“I try not to have a whole lot of expectations of how things are going to come out,” Wennerstrom, 29, explains. “I believe that if you write music that you like and you work hard getting it out there that people are going to respond to it.”
The Heartless Bastards have released two CDs, the garage-rocking “Stairs and Elevators” (2005) and last year’s superior “All This Time.” Some fans found the second album “mellow,” Wennerstrom says, but in many ways, it’s a leap forward. The pub-band blast has been refined with piano, which Wennerstrom delivers in concert using a digital keyboard during the song “Into the Open.”
Critics sometimes liken the Heartless Bastards to indie-blues duo The Black Keys, who helped get them signed to Fat Possum Records. But Wennerstrom thinks the comparison has more to do with the two groups being labelmates than any striking similarity in sound.
“I definitely don’t think we’re blues,” Wennerstrom says. “But I can see some blues tinge to it. But, no, I’m like one of the most simple guitar players ever, and Dan (Auerbach, the Black Keys frontman) is just amazing at guitar. So right off the bat, I can’t imagine. I don’t think we sound like them.”
The most common observation about the Heartless Bastards is that even their most straightforward rock is elevated by Wennerstrom’s compelling vocals, which are both fierce and feminine.
The New Yorker noted that she has “a booming voice that’s one part Robert Plant and two parts Janis Joplin.”
Spin wrote that she has “a captivating voice, like syrup being flung in a food fight.” (Whatever that means.)
Critics have noted that Wennerstrom has the ability to transform almost any tune into an anthem. But she doesn’t find her singing all that complicated, although she knows a few people find it unusual.
“Sometimes gender - like the fact that I sing lower - kind of comes up,” she says. “A lot of people say they actually thought I was a man the first time they heard me.”
Singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams is definitely a fan. The Heartless Bastards, who opened a few dates for her in the past, just found out that they’ll join Williams again for a multi-week run in March.
Wennerstrom calls the opportunity “awesome.” They’ll play venues including Radio City Music Hall and the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.
“If you open up for like 1,000 people in front of her, if 100 people discover you that have never heard of you - that really like you - that’s a pretty big dent,” she says.
Plus, no Williams audience has booed the Heartless Bastards off the stage. Yet.
“I can’t say we’re everybody’s cup of tea ... ” Wennerstrom says.
“But people seem to like and respond to it when we play in front of a crowd.”