'Heart: Night At Sky Church': Praise the Rock 'n' Roll Goddesses

I love it when a famous band kicks into a famous song live. No matter how many times I’ve heard the song before, when that first familiar beat, note or riff rings out, I feel an indescribable sense of elation.


Heart: Night At Sky Church

Label: Sony Legacy
Release Date: 2011-03-08

I love it when a famous band kicks into a famous song live. No matter how many times I’ve heard the song before, whether at a concert, listening to a live album or watching a visual recording, when that first familiar beat, note or riff rings out, I feel an indescribable sense of elation.

So when, on the new DVD release Heart: Night At Sky Church, guitarist Nancy Wilson kicks into the first chugging riff of “Barracuda”, I can’t help but think -- loudly -- “Kick fucking ass!” Part of my elation is linked no doubt to the audience’s explosive response. As this concert was filmed in Seattle, the hometown crowd is suitably adoring, understandably reverent and ready to rock.

The band provides. From the opener on, these gals and, yes, guys are having fun up there, something you don’t see often enough from rock stars who’ve been at it for nearly 50 years. Rather than posture or pander, Heart impresses through the sheer joy they obviously feel just making music, the simple satisfaction not only of being a great rock ’n’ roll band, but one of the true originals.

Besides the powerhouse Wilson sister act, Heart has always had some of the strongest, strangest, most underrated rhythmic arrangements of any rock band. Listen to the triple-hard drive of “Barracuda” with its weird gallopy drum fills, or the hyper-jazzy “Crazy On You” whose hi-hat beat verges on and then runs down disco. The arrangements and instrumentation are adventurous and unique, not just straight verse-chorus-verse, but sectional, with unexpected breakdowns and musical asides and interludes -- real writer’s rock.

And does it need to be said that Ann Wilson is one of the greatest singers of all time? Though I want to come up with some inevitable combination of comparisons -- the tonal control of someone like, say, Patsy Cline with the throat-shredding bluesiness of Janis Joplin or Robert Plant -- Wilson remains a true original. The mark of a great singer is not only to sound like no one else, but to have no one sound like you, and no one but no one sounds like Ann Wilson.

Why doesn’t this woman get more public accolades? When so many American music award shows gather together the Greatest Female Singers, with the unavoidable Aguilera or Hudson or Florence beside some soul/gospel stalwarts, where is Ann Wilson? I guess it’s a good thing, but as I watch such highlights here as “Love Alive”, or a devastatingly beautiful “Alone”, or the high-note wonders “Never” and “Straight On”, I can’t help but think what a shame it is you don’t hear more about the influence of Ann Wilson on young American Idol-era singers, especially when they steal her show and do her songs.

Besides being a kick-ass singer, Wilson is also a gracious performer. Here she shares the stage with Alison Krauss, letting the alt-country singer take the lead on the mega-hit “These Dreams”, before the women do some chill-inducing harmonies on Krauss’s own “Your Long Journey” and a new Heart ballad with Middle Eastern inflections, “Safronia’s Mark.”

Unfamiliar material is bound to suffer next to such consciousness-ingrained tunes as “Barracuda” or “These Dreams”. New ones here include the smooth-gliding “Red Velvet Car”; a thrashy, Zeppelinesque rocker whose title, “WTF”, seems a bit too jokey and topical for a song with a refrain as deadly as “One bridge to cross and one bridge to burn”; and the love song, “Hey You”, on which Nancy sings lead while playing one of my favorite instruments, the autoharp.

Again, need it be said? Nancy Wilson is one of rock’s great guitarists/instrumentalists. Besides possessing one of the coolest stage presences of any performer, her prowess on acoustic guitar especially remains unmatched, as she proves on “Crazy On You” and the funereal, magisterial “Mistral Wind”, which is heavier than anything by Seattle’s own Soundgarden. Nancy is also a considerable singer herself, not just the obvious Ethereal to Ann’s Earthiness, but able to express along with her sister elements of both.

This incarnation of the band gets it all right. Along with the sisters are a phlegmatic Craig Bartok (guitar/vocals/banjitar), a pony-tailed Debbie Shair (keyboards, vocals, sundries), a dashing Kristian Attard (bass) and solid Ben Smith (drums). Producer Ben Mink comes out to play guitar and violin -- er, I mean, fiddle.

Other songs include a pretty, but also pretty rote “What About Love”; two encores, “Sand” with just the sisters, and a virtually verbatim “Magic Man”, Moog, goofy guitar fills and all; plus two bonus tracks: “Back To Avalon” and Ann’s rocker “Kick It Out”.

Filmed March 2010 at Seattle’s Experience Music Project/Science Fiction Museum


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