John T. Davis was back at ACL Live on Monday night for the week’s second “Austin City Limits” taping (read his thoughts on Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats here). Here’s his report:
Nothing says “holiday spirit” like a show by a band named Heartless Bastards.
But there we were, a couple of thousand lucky fans and the Austin-based ensemble fronted by powerhouse vocalist Erika Wennerstrom, on Monday night, Thanksgiving around the corner, for the band’s taping of an episode for the 41st season of “Austin City Limits.”
The band, making their second “ACL” appearance since Season 35, built their set around tracks from their latest album, “Restless Ones.” The title is apt. As more than one reviewer has noted, the album is a far-flung array of styles and influences, vastly expanding the band’s palette beyond the rootsy, Americana-tinged sound that fueled their earlier albums.
Perhaps in a nod to the swirling diversity of the new album, the HB quartet (Wennerstrom, guitarist Mark Nathan, drummer Dave Colvin and bassist Jesse Ebaugh) were joined by a woman whose name I didn’t catch, a fine utility player who fleshed out the band’s sound on keyboards, guitar and vocals. If she isn’t the newest Bastard (so to speak), she made a good case for permanent inclusion.
The band romped out of the gate with “Gates of Dawn,” a big full-throated rocker that seemed to set the direction for the evening. But not so fast. What followed was less a cohesive musical statement, but a collection of moods and moments. And that, it appeared, was just what Heartless Bastards were going for.
One moment, there was punkish, mechanical push/pull of “Gotta Have Rock and Roll” (from their previous album, “Arrow”). The next, Wennerstrom was swimming languidly through the paisley colored psychedelic tide that was “Wind Up Bird.” A Byrds/Neil Young folk-rocked vibe fueled “Journey,” one of the evening’s more musically eloquent moments. That track contrasted starkly with the turgid metallic drone of “Down In the Canyon,” (also from “Arrow”), which by turn bumped up against the tinkling dancehall piano signature of “Into the Light.” “The Arrow Killed the Beast” was an atmospheric slice of Noir & Western, and “Pocket Full of Thirst” was a Lucinda Williams-esque slice of yearning and rediscovery.
Not all of it hit the bullseye, but when the pieces came together, as in the effortlessly effervescent country-rocker “Hi-Line,” with Wennerstrom surfing a bulletproof groove and singing, “Without you here/ It looks like all night,” it made for one of the evening’s highlights. The gorgeous melody belies the doleful lyrical tale of loss, which should not have worked. But it did, and splendidly at that.
If nothing else, Heartless Bastards’ “ACL” taping displayed a band determined to push the envelope and confound expectations. And that, even with a misfire or two, is never a bad thing.