Show Review: Heartless Bastards with Hacienda and Amy Cook at The Independent, 5/4/10

by Jason LeRoy on May 5, 2010

Last night was yet another opportunity for San Francisco’s considerable population of Ohioan expatriates to cluster around and listen to one of our homeland’s finest musical exports. Dayton and Cincinnati were enthusiastically represented by the barreling, moody Midwestern rock of Heartless Bastards, while Akron was represented in absentia by The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, whose influence is largely responsible for the recording careers of both the Bastards and opener Hacienda.

Sadly, though, it was Texas that was more accurately represented by last night’s show; the members of Hacienda hail from there, and Bastards frontwoman (and only original member) Erika Wennerstrom relocated to Austin three years ago. What’s the deal with everyone moving to Texas these days? Have fun being executed! But then again, if the lushly melodic harmonies of crowd-pleasers Hacienda are any evidence of the positive musical benefits of growing up in Texas (not to mention the towering kickassness of the Bastards’ first Texas album, The Mountain), I suppose I’ll suspend my judgment for the time being.

In case you’ve never seen Heartless Bastards in concert before, let me say this: they do not fuck around. Wennerstrom on vocals and guitar, along with Jesse Ebaugh on bass, Mark Nathan on guitar, and Dave Colvin on drums, rock thoroughly and efficiently. Perhaps most awesomely, they rock maturely. These are not prancing young kids we’re talking about. There is nothing flashy, trendy, or gimmicky about their music or performances. It’s just the pummeling sound of four passionate, professional musicians rocking everyone’s asses off.

Wennerstrom, of course, is the star of the show. Or, should I say, Wennerstrom’s voice. It’s hard to describe, and even harder to find another like it. It is deep and bluesy and hard, but also plaintive and sad, damaged in all the right ways. She occupies a unique space in the pantheon of rock frontwomen, reminiscent alternately of Kim Gordon, Susan Tedeschi, and fellow Ohio native Chrissie Hynde.

But perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay Wennerstrom is that her talents transcend such reductive gender assignations. I do not mean that she isn’t feminine; rather, her powerful roar is androgynous is the most accessible possible way. As a lifelong vagina music fan, I can attest that last night’s packed crowd was possibly the most diverse (and dude-heavy) audience I’ve ever seen for a concert by a band with a chick singer. This is some sort of triumph.

While listening to the Bastards, I found myself thinking about their music in terms of honesty. As in, “Heartless Bastards make honest Midwestern rock music.” I remembered that they’d played a show at Slim’s last year with The Gaslight Anthem, and kicked myself for having missed such an “honest” double-header (The Gaslight Anthem are always being called Bruce Springsteen’s favorite band, since they all hail from New Jersey, which: honest!). Good thing The Hold Steady weren’t there, or there would have been “honesty” overdoses left and right.

There’s just something about the Bastards’ solid, no-frills, consistently midtempo sound that makes me think of honesty. Then I started applying this definition to The Independent: “You know, The Independent is perfect for them, because it’s the most honest venue in town! Not too big, not too small; no ornate decorations; just a dark, open, square-shaped room with a stage and a bar; like The Fillmore, but without the pompous historical associations.”

But then I started to feel like Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck talking about “the real America” and “honest Americans vs. coastal elites” or something like that. So I thought I should probably dial it back a bit, lest I get a reputation as some kind of Midwestern music supremacist. But suffice it to say that Heartless Bastards put on a hell of a show last night. Even a California native could have seen that.

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