Whether or not the butterflies in the stomach go away after nearly a decade of experience is not the point. More important is what's done with that pre-show itch, that fluttering mess of nerves and adrenaline. Tired old bands let the gas vent while overzealous newbies often light the spark too early, assuming their hands aren't shaking uncontrollably to begin with.
But bands in their prime—bands like Austin, Texas quartet Heartless Bastards—create a well-timed fireworks display out of age-old ingredients. They tighten up when the mood begins to sag and unbutton before the pressure is unbearable. Kite masters, these bands exercise careful control over the audience with every note struck.
The thread that held Heartless Bastards to the crowd Sunday evening at the Aladdin was more like fisherman's rope, thick and unwavering. Every audience member was lassoed at the waist and held in place for a close to two hour set comprised mostly of new material.
Like the bison (buffalo are African; bison are American, people) that adorns the cover of latest release Broken Arrow, Heartless Bastards has become a symbol of the American West. Large, majestic, and always after open spaces, Heartless Bastards are somewhat of an endangered species today. The band's meaty sound—which lies somewhere in the valley between Texas-bred roadhouse rock and countrified broken-hearted soul—made for the loudest show I've ever witnessed at the Aladdin (there was no escaping them; out of shear curiosity I walked out during the last song and heard it well past Powell, roughly two blocks away).
Heartless Bastards did a number of remarkable things in Portland. First, they played extraordinarily hard, without so much as a hiccup. Original members Dave Colvin (drums) and Jesse Ebaugh (bass)—who played in the band's first demos in 2003—have since returned and it appears they still understand each other extremely well. Secondly, vocalist and guitarist Erika Wennerstrom blew the house down with her steaming, ghostly, sticky-as-syrup vocals. The sound blends Victoria Legrand's (Beach House) low-set wailing with Bonnie Raitt's tight composure and countrified inflection.
Wennerstrom is a reinforcer, evidenced by her stretched-out lines and repetitious, highly memorable lyrical stance. In songs like "Low Low Low" and "Only For You," her voice fastens like tree sap and can't be washed off for days (not that you'd want to). In this sense, she haunts her listeners, imparting an unusual, pseudo-spooky characteristic to a genre of music that's typically just rundown or sore-hearted.
Surely, some of HB's explosiveness can be credited to Jim Eno. Spoon's drummer produced Broken Arrow, giving the band free range to forage here and stampede there. When they do flex - as in the Black Sabbath inspired "Got To Have Rock And Roll"—HB does so with pulsing veins and calculated solos. Guitarist Mark Nathan had a field day here, pouncing on every gap, large or small, with articulate, lightning-fast guitar speak.
In playing "Only For You," Heartless Bastards showed their groove-happy, cuddly side. Yet, like most of the band's material, this track offers an ominous, stormy undercurrent. Nathan's groaning guitar conducts the entire track, returning over and over again to a lazy riff seemingly plucked from an old Chuck Berry track (and slowed way down).
All in all, Heartless Bastards performed like true professionals. Nervous, solicitous, egomaniacal or out-of-sync are labels that could never be placed on this performance. Instead, Wennerstrom and company enveloped us all with the same natural beauty the American West is known for, albeit in smaller pockets today.
If you missed 'em, mark your calendars. Heartless Bastards return to Portland for Pickathon on August 3rd.