HOBOKEN, NJ—Before opening for seasoned high-profile troubadour Lucinda Williams at Radio City Music Hall, upstart Cincinnati trio The Heartless Bastards seized the stage two nights hence inside Hoboken’s hallowed backroom landmark, Maxwell’s. Taking advantage of transitory headlining status, the powerhouse blues-y triad delivered a well-received hour-and-a-half set filled to the brim with tersely performed tunes from their critically hailed debut, Stairs & Elevators, and its enduring ’06 followup, All This Time.
Inspired by Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and a boatload of subordinate R&B sanctities, singer-guitarist Erika Wennerstrom belted out original hard rockers in a convincingly husky contralto. Always verging on the edge of despair, volatile opener, “No Pointing Arrows,” oozed with drone-y sub-Sabbath guitar-bass sludge, reaching an excruciatingly determined zenith as Wennerstrom’s cigarette-coarsened moan crept up from beneath the floorboards to way above the sympathetic crowd. Despite their loudly pungent sound and ruthlessly villainous moniker, these “supposed” Heartless Bastards are actually a shy, friendly cadre, offering very little ’tween-song chatter and assuming no postures while Wennerstrom laid bare emotional conviction.
“I didn’t really listen to rock until about age 16. Nobody I knew really paid attention to it,” Catholic-schooled Dayton native Wennerstrom confessed afterwards. “I’m not into church, but I’m really into (gospel legend) Mahalia Jackson. I heard of her from a Christmas album that had ‘Go Tell It On the Mountain.’”
By way of Gospel, Wennerstrom felt secure plying her grandiose pipes to hard luck blues, giving a firm woman’s perspective to the weathered “Feel So Old,” a gloomy minimalist mantra done in a scruffy timbre cognizant of southern R&B practitioner R.L. Burnside—an amazing feat (especially coming from the mouth of a diminutive midwest blonde). Yet she never succumbs to mere abrasive contemptuousness, maintaining sharp-knifed certitude while bleeding sorrow and pain.
“Everybody has their own pain. I think pain is relative,” she claims, deflecting any overbearing heartache endured then transposed through anguished lyrics. “I complain about a million things that happened to me. But I guarantee there are people who’ve suffered worse.”
Perchance, one of those sufferers was influential wheelchair-bound slide guitarist, Cedell Davis, a fellow Fat Possum Records artist whose latent career found a ripened ’90s audience after years of neglect. Nonetheless, Wennerstrom also admits to having a hankering for fellow underground Ohio rockers Guided By Voices and Braniac—two prematurely defunct outfits that toured ceaselessly, not unlike these busy Bastards.
Perhaps mostly reminiscent of tragic cosmic blues figure Janis Joplin, Wennerstrom sings with the same raggedy heart-on-the-sleeve fervor and converses in a similarly elucidated fragile twanged drawl. An unadulterated urgency constantly enriches her vitally projected haunted pining. Stormy polar discontent (“so cold in the winter”) and dusky escapism curdle bewitching numbers such as “Into The Open,” where she intermittently turns to piano for somber retreat. Quite possibly, her band may have sold millions had they existed right after Joplin’s exquisite Pearl dropped in 1970.
Thankfully, the efficient rhythm section of bassist Mike Lamping and drummer Kevin Vaughn provide plentiful gusto, safeguarding their distressfully self-effacing primary damsel to the hilt. Together a mere four years, The Heartless Bastards have already accomplished plenty. Hanging around veteran performers such as Lucinda Williams and James McMurtry could only help seal their fate as semi-famous subterranean homesick blues-rockers.
Prior to the HB set, Brooklyn’s own Katy Mae kept the gathering patrons amply content with roots-y beat-driven honky tonk-informed scrums and early REM-like melodicism. Supporting their six-song 25-minute entree, The Lightning And The Sun, the raging trio’s raunchy guitar rancor, wailing vocal thunder, and punctual rhythmic force proved both elementary and perplexing, scattering just a daub of post-grunge aggression amidst the fury.