Heart gets vaguely rootsy with Alison Krauss and Ben Mink in Seattle
Heart (with Alison Krauss and Ben Mink) – EMP Sky Church – Seattle, WA – Mar. 5, 2010
I couldn’t tell you the first time I heard Heart, but I can tell you the first time I saw them. It was a music video – back when MTV showed those things – for the song “Alone.” Not Heart’s finest moment, but it’s hardly one to sneeze at.
I’m going to try to recall the video without actually looking it up.
There were fog machines, colorful lighting which spread out against the fog. Probably some oddly, dramatically draped fabric. A live concert scene where Nancy Wilson dominated, kicking the crap out of her guitar. Both Wilson sisters had very long teased hair. I don’t recall anything else, really. I think at one point, maybe, Ann Wilson stood on a balcony Romeo & Juliet-style, singing emotively.
It was just some ’80s music video, but it stuck with me. (Okay, finally looked it up. Here you go…)
This night, the band (except for the keyboard player) left the stage for “Alone.” Nancy strummed an acoustic guitar. The explosion at the end of the song was more implicit than anything, and the sisters veered more toward emotional dynamics than sonic crescendos. This wasn’t a running theme, though. “Barracuda,” which opened the show, and “Magic Man,” which closed it, were, as expected, a pair of rock and roll pistol sparkling firecrackers.
Hardly twang, far as this site goes, but there’s more. Alison Krauss was there.
She came out fairly early to sing lead on “These Dreams,” which felt perfectly suited for her voice. Nancy Wilson traded in her electric guitar for a mandolin this time around, and Krauss was backed by both sisters for what turned into some lush and delicious three-part harmonies. She came back later to sit in on fiddle for some tunes from the band’s forthcoming Red Velvet Car. Indeed, Heart’s new material was damn near rootsy. Dueling fiddles (Krauss and producer Ben Mink), acoustic guitars, banjitar. Autoharp. Seriously.
Not terribly surprising, considering that the solo album Ann made a few years ago, Hope & Glory, steered hard toward the acoustic Americana thing when she chose to pull in Krauss, Shawn Colvin, k.d. lang, Wynona, and other guests. Of the new material, “Hey You,” a song written and sung by Nancy, was most notable. Like so much of Heart’s catalog, “Hey You” was a heartbreaker. But this time, instead of relying on rock and roll tricks like heavily distorted guitars and chunky drum pounding, the band turned to thick harmonies, acoustic guitars, and syncopated lyric arrangements to build toward the climax. Like I mentioned above – more of an emotional dynamic than an aural one.
Don’t get me wrong. I love a good rock jam. I marveled much of this night at Nancy’s sheer rock chick awesomeness – her rockstar kicks and jumps, the it-factor. Ann’s wailing vocals and front-lady persona. The hard drumming, the slick, intuitive guitar solos. But, as much as the rock show blew my mind, Wilson’s mandolin delighted me. The sheer presence of a banjitar perked me up. I’m easy like that, and predictable.
But, that said, I’m not so easy that simply picking up a country music instrument means I’ll dig it. A band evolving through genres must do so deliberately, in an inspired, artful manner. Simply reinventing oneself is rarely enough to be convincing. But Heart has clocked four decades in the music industry thus far, and has under its belt songs which verge on rock opus, guitar pop, and formulaic radio-friendly tunes. So why not give a go to the style and sound emergent from their hometown music scene these days? The rootsiness pouring from some of the Red Velvet Car tunes they shared during this show felt less like trying to fit into a scene, though, and more like simply an honest pronouncement of where Heart is now, in 2010, as a band. Pull them out from under the category of arena rock and hair bands, if you will, and give them room to groove against that autoharp. It doesn’t make them an Americana band, per se, but it does plop them into an aesthetic most folks won’t expect from Heart. And it does so in a way which avoids gimmicks and skips straight to the heart of the song. Pun intended.
The new disc, with all its rootsy decorations, will drop in July. Based on the new tunes they did, there will be some blatant rockers as well. So, something for everyone. The DVD they filmed during this show will no doubt release around the same time. Here’s a link to the full set list for folks interested in such things.