[22 March 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
“The last time we were here, we learned that a cup of coffee turns to dust in mid-air when it’s minus 40,” said Heart guitarist Nancy Wilson midway through the band’s set in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
Indeed, the veteran and soon-to-be Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame inductees are developing a knack for showing up in the prairie city amidst brutal weather. Even scheduling a show closer to spring didn’t improve things, as Heart arrived during a highly unusual cold snap in March. But that didn’t stop 2,000 people from bundling up and clomping through the snow into the cozy theater confines of TCU Place to see the classic rock faves, whose mid-‘70s success in Canada paved the way to worldwide fame and forever endeared sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson to the country.
Unusual for a warm-up act – granted we all needed warming up on that frigid night – the theater was filled nearly to capacity for Simon Townshend. The younger brother of the Who’s Pete Townshend, he was spending his down time from playing second guitar in the Who by travelling across the country with Heart, and he delivered a stirring, intimate solo set. His recent album Looking Out Looking In was one of 2012’s overlooked gems, and his stripped down renditions of such tracks as “Forever and a Day” and “Bed of Roses”, as well as his 1983 song “I’m the Answer” alternated from tender to visceral, and were greeted with enthusiastic responses from the crowd.
After a quick changeover the lights dimmed and the familiar galloping rhythm riff of “Barracuda” introduced Heart’s set. In front of three video screens and an understated lighting set-up, the Wilson sisters quickly asserted that this night was going to be all about the music, not the flash. While Nancy strutted the stage playing those distinct leads Ann took over, showcasing a voice that has not lose a shred of power in nearly 40 years. Shaming many male rock singers whose voices went to hell at the age of 30, the 62 year-old belted out the song – not the easiest track to perform – with an ease that left many in the crowd, including yours truly, dumbstruck.
While Heart’s strong recent album Fanatic got some deserving attention (the sludgy “Dear Old America” and the rambunctious “59 Crunch” are a pair of highlights), the bulk of the 90-minute set revolved around their best-loved songs from between 1976 and 1987. Ably supported by guitarist Craig Bartok, keyboardist Debbie Shair, bassist Dan Rothchild, and drummer Ben Smith, who smartly stayed largely in the background, the Wilsons led the way through a well-sequenced set. Faithful renditions of popular singles were tossed out (the gentle ‘70s AOR funk of “Heartless”, the gloriously garish ‘80s power balladry of “What About Love”), and the usual crowd-pleasers were carted out (the sultry “Magic Man”, “Dreamboat Annie”), but the nicest revelations where when the sisters offered unique takes on their garish ‘80s material. Nancy’s “These Dreams” was given some welcome rustic soul thanks to her mandolin, while Ann played a sparse and stunning acoustic version of “Alone”, which earned a roaring ovation.
Gracious throughout the show, the sisters proved to be as charming as ever, whether it was Ann’s playful between-song chatter or Nancy’s scissor kicks during show-stopper “Crazy on You”. Clearly buoyed by the astounding popularity of their “Stairway to Heaven” cover at the Kennedy Center Honors in December, the ladies have been on quite a led Zeppelin kick these days, and they and the band started the encore with a blistering, dead-on version of “Black Dog”, Ann’s singing proving to be just as gritty and bluesy as Robert Plant ever was. They had one more surprise in store, though, closing the show with a full-blown cover of the Who’s Quadrophenia classic “Love Reign O’er Me”, with Simon Townshend joining in on guitar, capping off a performance that showed just how much vitality Heart still brings to the stage. The audience at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony is going to be wowed.