Heartless Bastards - The Echoplex - 4/3/12
Better Than . . . standing under the flight path of a jumbo jet at LAX.
If Heartless Bastards keep coming to Los Angeles, they're going to need a bigger boat, to paraphrase Roy Scheider in Jaws. The previous time the Texas band played the Echoplex, back in 2010, they filled the place, but last night the crowd was so large and packed in so tight, even the club's employees had difficulty making their way through the throng to restock the bar with more cases of beer.
Lead singer and guitarist Erika Wennerstrom seems to have stumbled upon an unusual formula for success. As the group's draw has increased with each visit to town, her blues-tinged hard-rock songs have become longer and slower, culminating in the fulsome intensity of the Bastards' latest album, Arrow. If anything, Wennerstrom's fans prefer that she wallows in her emotions at extended length and volume instead of in the relatively compact songs from her early releases.
In many ways, Heartless Bastards represent the last great hope for guitar rock, and rock & roll in general. They have a powerful, direct sound that relies on Wennerstrom's expansive power chords, and yet they don't fit neatly into various retro-rock genres like grunge, alternative, heavy metal and hard rock. She and co-guitarist Mark Nathan avoid most rock clichés, and even when one of them plays lead, they tend to do so with thick chords and chiming string drones instead of typical string-bend noodling and wankery.
Heartless Bastards' Erika Wennerstrom
Of course, so much of the Heartless Bastards' sound lies in Wennerstrom's searing vocals, which somehow cut through the stormy chaos her band cooks up, while retaining plenty of beguiling personality. She's a riot grrl without the riot -- dressed all in black and coming off as fearless and inspirational without resorting to coquettish flirting or faux-tomboy toughness.
After the early barrage of heavy new songs like "Parted Ways" and "Got to Have Rock & Roll," Wennerstrom brought out Heidi Johnson, who sang backup intermittently throughout the set. Johnson's angelic harmonies added a sometimes-subtle layer of melody to contrast the bedrock crush of Wennerstrom's and Nathan's pulverizing guitars. The new album's "Simple Feeling" was an early highlight, living up to its title with Wennerstrom's near-rapturous effusion of pent-up vocals and nonstop pummeling guitars.