[5 May 2009]
Situated in an historic neighborhood in Covington, Kentucky, the Madison Theater is a short walk or swim across the Ohio River from Cincinnati—the former home of Heartless Bastards. The band returned to the area from their new home in Austin to celebrate the release of their fine new album, The Mountain.
Soon after their first release—Stairs and Elevators on Fat Possum, in 2004—I saw the Heartless Bastards at a Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center event. I was curious about the buzz surrounding the band and their new album. In a small black box theater, they nervously took the stage and proceeded to rip through a blistering set of tunes that left even the wine and cheese crowd agape. A month or two later I saw them help open a small, and now defunct, record store in Covington. Maybe 30 people watched as, once again, Erika Wennerstrom wowed with her unique and powerful voice. Backed by a tight rhythm section, her capable guitar playing and great voice provided the perfect vehicle for her songs of personal struggle and occasional triumph. It was blues-rock in a simple, crunchy and potent form—no lead guitar theatrics, no jazzy interludes.
Four years later Wennerstrom has left behind her original bassist and drummer, moved to Austin, and recorded The Mountain, her third record for Fat Possum, and a bit of a departure from her previous work. There is more diverse instrumentation: Pedal steel, violin, acoustic guitar, mandolin, and banjo can be heard. It seems that a raw Appalachian country-blues influence has percolated up through the crunchy blues-rock of her previous albums.
Wennerstrom took the stage with her new band, which now consists of Jesse Ebaugh on bass and Dave Colvin on drums. An additional guitarist, Mark Nathan, has joined the band on the road and he adds a new element to the live shows—the ability to augment the songs with lead guitar frills and atmospheric noise. It’s a great addition as it fills in the tight punch of rhythm and allows Wennerstrom to focus on her vocals, the band’s main musical weapon and an awesome aural treat.
Sporting an orange dress and high-heeled boots, Wennerstrom strode to the microphone with a bottle of Jameson’s and a bottle of beer in hand. They started the show with “Into the Open” from their second record, All This Time, Wennerstrom deftly switching from piano to rhythm guitar as the song practically explodes from its gentle beginning. Next we heard “Done Got Old” and “New Resolution” from Stairs and Elevators. These songs of personal struggle resonated with crowd. Then, with Ebaugh switching to pedal steel and Nathan to bass, the band played its first song from the new album—the title song “The Mountain”. At some point the Jameson’s was passed around the stage and toasts were made “to being home.” The crowd enthusiastically raised their drinks in the air. From there the band ran through songs from all three albums, finishing the main set with a crowd favorite, “Gray”. It was a very good show from a band that hasn’t let me down yet. The new rhythm section drove an even more propulsive edge than the former members and the extra guitarist added increased depth to the sound.
It was also a good crowd, probably in the neighborhood of 800, which filled the main floor and seated areas—a far cry from 300 at the Southgate House or 30 at a record store. At least in Cincinnati, the Heartless Bastards sound ripples through various sub-cultures that made up the crowd: Indie kids to backwards-baseball cappers to ponytailed hippies, twenty-somethings to AARP-ers, all in good beery spirits.
Holding the attention of this hometown crowd waiting for their returning heroes couldn’t have been easy, but Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears did just that. Their olio of old Stax-like soul, Meters funk, garage rock, and blues jump-started the party. The seven- piece band was tight and groovy, with Lewis’ vocals and guitar playing nicely augmented by a three-piece horn section. But, I missed the keyboards that are a nice part of Black Joe’s new and whole-lotta-fun Lost Highway release, Tell ‘Em What Your Name Is. Still, they’re a force, and I’d go see them again by themselves. They, too, can kick it.
Cincinnati, as a city, can suffer from an inferiority complex. We tend to grab a little desperately at the things that can make us proud to be here in this most southern of northern cities, with its geographically varied influences. One of those things would be our music scene. Along with the National, another band of ex-patriot Cincinnatians, and other great bands of less renown, we have the Heartless Bastards. And they are pretty damn good, even if their home-away-from-home is Austin. So, forgive us for being proud.