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Heartless Bastards, by any other name, would be Erika Wennerstrom's pride and joy

Heartless Bastards play the Austin City Limits Music Festival's second weekend at 2:30 p.m. on Friday.

Erika Wennerstrom still remembers how friends used to greet her when she started the band Heartless Bastards in Cincinnati almost two decades ago. “I would be walking down the street and somebody would yell out their car window, ‘you’re a heartless bastard!’ and smile at me,” she recalls. “I loved it. I thought it was hilarious.”

But after five Heartless Bastards albums, which stretched across the group’s relocation to Austin in 2007, she wondered if the name had become more of a burden than a boost. In 2018, Wennerstrom released the acclaimed album “Sweet Unknown” under her own name, the first time she’d done so.

“I probably wouldn’t name the band Heartless Bastards at this point,” she admits. “There’s a little part of me here that gets a little self conscious about it. The whole way the name came about was just my sense of humor; it’s the wrong answer on a multiple-choice question of what Tom Petty’s backing band is.”

Yet when Wennerstrom started working on a follow-up album a couple of years ago, she doubled back on the doubts she’d had. “A Beautiful Life,” which came out last month and was acclaimed as “the best record she’s ever made” in these pages, proudly bears the Heartless Bastards name on its cover.

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“I think it's come a bit full-circle, for me,” she says. “It’s a reminder for me to keep a sense of humor and not take myself so seriously. With that in mind, I’m kind of re-embracing the name. I’m proud of it; I’m proud of the five previous albums and everything I’ve done.”

She also acknowledges that she’d built up a lot of brand-recognition with the band name, and she wanted “A Beautiful Life” to be heard as widely as possible. With good reason: It’s a fascinating, confident album that covers a lot of ground both musically and lyrically, with an impressive supporting cast that included longtime Heartless Bastards bassist Jesse Ebaugh as well as local guitar wizards David Pulkingham and Lauren Gurgiolo.

It kicks off with a spectacular song called “Revolution,” the title of which might suggest a political manifesto of sorts. But like the classic Beatles tune of the same name, the song isn’t quite what it might seem on the surface. “The revolution,” Wennerstrom sings in the song’s key lyric, “is in your mind.”

“It’s not so much a political song. It’s almost like asking people to look beyond politics,” Wennerstrom says. “I do lean liberal, but it’s kind of a call for people to look beyond that, to the deeper message of just loving one another. It’s really just a song about being a good person.”

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Wennerstrom initially started making the record with noted local producer Danny Reisch at his Lockhart studio, but eventually ended up doing most of it in Los Angeles with Kevin Ratterman (known for his work with Ray LaMontagne, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James and others). The goal was to wrap the record in time to tour in the fall of 2020, but as was the case for most musicians, the pandemic put those plans on hold for about a year.

Erika Wennerstrom released an album under her own name in 2018.

When Wennerstrom started gearing up for a fall tour that includes Friday’s appearance at the Austin City Limits Music Festival plus a Saturday slot at the Kerrville Folk Festival, she took the unusual step of booking gigs every Friday and Saturday in August at South Congress venues C-Boy’s and the Continental Club. Both rooms are on the small side for Heartless Bastards — the group also helped the much-larger Mohawk reopen in late May after more than a year of pandemic closure — but the intimate shows proved a good way for Wennerstrom to break in the touring lineup of the band.

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The rhythm section features drummer Gregory Clifford, who played on “A Beautiful Life,” and Sam Pankey, who’s played with Clifford in various local jazz ensembles. Also in the lineup are Austin indie musicians Jonas Wilson (Night Glitter) and Andy Bianculli (Star Parks), plus backing vocalist Beth Harris of Cincinnati.

The monthlong C-Boy’s/Continental residencies were perhaps a rite-of-passage for Heartless Bastards, who were once the new-band-in-town after the relocation from Ohio but now feel ingrained as a long-term presence on the Austin music scene.

“It’s just nice to support the Austin clubs,” Wennerstrom said. “I love the Continental and C-Boys; they're kind of staples. And with it being a new band, I thought it was a great idea to really get warmed up for the road.”

As the band has prospered over the past decade, Wennerstrom has watched Austin grow and change. “It’s a great city, despite the rapid growth,” she says. “It can can be a bit much at times, but I remind myself that through it all, Austin still is cool.

“I’m from Dayton, Ohio, which is almost like a little Detroit, as far as how it’s shrinking. I think it's nicer to see a city grow rather than shrink, so I just remind myself of that.”

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The band has watched ACL Fest grow over the past two decades as well, playing it several times since moving here. One of those time was the notorious "Dillo Dirt" year, when an attempt to shore up the grounds during a rainy stretch resulted in Zilker Park becoming largely a mudbath.

Wennerstrom saw the bright side of it all. “When that happens at a festival, at some point people just let go,” she says. “They don't care that everybody's covered in mud. You just kind of have fun, because you're all in the same boat, and it becomes very memorable. We had a great time, anyway.”