Show Review

Heartless Bastards

Live @ A&R Music Bar

Brian Ahnmark
Neither drunks nor amplifier malfunctions nor a litany of PA meltdowns could hamper the Heartless Bastards from plowing their gritty, tank-heavy tunes right through the guts of a loyal army of listeners Thursday night at the A&R Music Bar.

It was a homecoming (ish) show for the Cincinnati-borne, Austin-based quartet. Lead vocalist/principal songwriter Erika Wennerstrom even noted that she had family in the audience, but don't be mistaken – this was no feel-good piano recital. It was an obliteration, the band flexing its muscles for two hours throughout a career-spanning 20-song set.

Touring in support of their fourth LP Arrow, released just two days before the show, the Bastards surprisingly played the record in its entirety. And for good reason; the ten-song cycle is their most focused and creative work to date. Epic album opener “Marathon” also lit the fuse for the concert, Wennerstrom wailing the refrain of “I'm on my way home” with added poignancy.

The current incarnation of the lineup features the return of two original members – bassist Jesse Ebaugh and drummer Dave Colvin – and the addition of guitarist Mark Nathan. This was the Bastards' touring lineup before the recording sessions for Arrow , and the combination of stage and studio experience have created a mean monster of a sonic unit. Colvin is a giant, a Tasmanian devil behind the kit, a flurry of fills and fury without ever breaking a sweat. His machine gun blasts carried “Gray” and triggered bombs throughout the escalating finale of new single “Parted Ways.” Ebaugh brought the fuzz foundation to “Got To Have Rock and Roll” but also showed off a deft touch on “Only For You.” A multi-instrumental weapon, he also played lead acoustic guitar on “Low Low Low” and poured screaming lap steel all over “The Mountain.” Nathan has proven himself to be invaluable, his melodic leads stretching the Bastards into fresh territory. His catastrophic solo on “Simple Feeling” damn near collapsed the A&R Music Bar into The Basement venue downstairs.

Nathan's presence also allows Wennerstrom to switch from electric to acoustic guitar without any loss of power – which is frankly shocking, considering the weight of the new material. But the overall result was a stunning variety in presentation. Classics such as “Done Got Old” and “Sway” sizzled with the blistering two-guitar attack. On “Into the Open,” the lead song from 2006's All This Time , Wennerstrom hammered her way through keyboard parts with her rattlesnake skin guitar strap dangling precariously from her shoulder, before pounding out the choruses and instrumental breaks on her Gibson. In a gutsy maneuver, the Bastards also tried out “Skin and Bone” from Arrow, a conga-led acoustic song that Colvin replicated by playing toms with his hands while Ebaugh shook a maraca. When Nathan's acoustic guitar malfunctioned through the sound system, Ebaugh didn't miss a beat: “This is a maraca solo!” he exclaimed.

Leading the charge was Wennerstrom, her voice a simmering boil always one degree from a volcanic eruption. It helps that she's an unflinching badass, at one point winding her way around the monitors to the front of the stage for the sole purpose of kicking a dumbshit who'd turned around to talk to a drunk friend.

“Who gets in the front row of a rock and roll concert and turns their back to the band?” Wennerstrom asked incredulously, her wry smile drawing a huge cheer.

A bruising two-song encore of “All This Time” and “Nothing Seems the Same,” following a molten rendition of Arrow closer “Down In The Canyon,” displayed no trace of waning intensity from the band, if anything upping the energy ante as the clock pushed well past midnight. And cutting through the noise was Wennerstrom's voice, still savage and raw and unaffected by the evening's abuse.

Rest assured that no one's back was turned to the stage.

Established Austin four-piece Hacienda opened for the Bastards, delivering a satisfying and upbeat set. These comrades of Black Key Dan Auerbach have a new record on the way this summer (recorded and produced by Auerbach in Nashville) and performed several new songs, including lead single “Savage.” Their tight Texas boogie had no shortage of soul.