Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Heartless Bastards @ the Varsity

This weekend I headed over to dinkytown's quirky Varsity Theater to catch Heartless Bastards and Good Old War. The headlining act was supposed to be Gaslight Anthem, but due to a medical emergency (apparently someone had a serious abscessed tooth), they had to cancel, so Heartless Bastards took over as the headliner.

Good Old War is a band I've written about before and thus was quite excited to see how they translated in a live setting. I was mainly interested in finding out how much of their sound was cleaned up by production magic, because as someone who has been to many a concert where vocals have failed the perfection of album work (I'm looking at you, Imogen Heap), I'm always a tad weary of what a band actually sounds like live. Turns out I had nothing the worry about, for these boys can sing - GOW can harmonize beautifully, certainly earning their common comparisons to Crosby, Stills and Nash and Dispatch. Their perfectly pitched and clear voices blend in a effortless and natural manner, sailing off the winds of remarkably fresh acoustic folk-rock that strolls along. "Coney Island" was their most well-known number, as the audience whooped the loudest when those opening chords were strummed and folks really started to get up and moving.

Throughout the concert, guitarist Dan was always happy and almost danced while playing, and won mega points with the audience when he went up to the propped guitar to do some extra solo work. Heartless Bastards' Jesse Ebaugh was borrowed to add some pedal steel guitar for a song (Tim and Dan both got on their knees and bowed, I'm-not-worthy style to Jesse after), Keith manned the lead vocals and a synth bass for the evening, and drummer Tim came up front with an accordion for a few numbers. You may be wondering how the band sounds sans-drums when Tim is up front, and I got to tell you, when three men like that stand up on the very front of a stage and sing in perfect 3-part harmony, it's a beautiful thing. A beautiful thing.

Good Old War's set was sweet and too short (my friend turned to me and said, "aw, they're done already?") but it was time for the Heartless Bastards to rock out. Heartless Bastards are a rock-alt-garage-y band with a bluesy kick that formed in 2003 and recently released their third album The Mountain in February. They opened up with "Into the Open," an excellent choice to start things off relatively soft and to introduce all who were not previously familiar to frontwoman Erika Wennerstrom's distinctive deep and husky rock voice. Its an odd thing to finally hear it live and up close - if anyone were to call it similar to Adele's (in an alto-way), I would now agree, although that's not something I picked up listening to recorded album tracks.

Things you should know when attending a Heartless Bastards concert: one, if you stand in the front, prepare to have your soul blown away by the intense drumming and gut-wrenching bass lines and two, if you like end-of-song jams that make you rock your body and your mind scream "YES," then you're where you're supposed to be.

Drummer Dave Colvin nearly steals the show at points - his drumming spot-on, down-right ingenious and his rhythmic rampages are one of the main attractions of seeing this band live. Not to say any of the other members are any lesser at their respective crafts- Erika knows how to work the guitar in fine touch with her powerful vocals while making all the rocker-chick goddesses out there proud, Jesse has the extraordinary skill that one requires to work a pedal steel guitar (as he studied under Neil Flanz), and Mark and Jesse both can jam with the best of them. The highlights of the concert included the songs that Heartless Bastards know how to build up well - "Sway" starts off almost poppy and simple, but swells with each added rock-induced melody until it finally resounds with crashing and triumphant guitar jams and the nodding heads of the crowd. "The Mountain" is an instant pleaser, starting off with grainy electric guitar powerchords and classic rock drums only to end with an awesome trippy pedal guitar jam. Things were brought down a touch in the encore with the acoustic number "So Quiet" before hitting up "Runnin" and "Grey" to close the alternative-rock lovefest that was the evening at the Varsity.

Coney Island by Good Old War [mp3] (iTunes)
The Mountain by Heartless Bastards [mp3] (iTunes)

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