SXSW 2013: Heartless Bastards


Growing up the son of a Fleetwood-Mac/Stevie-Nicks-obsessed mother, I have an almost unnatural love of female rock vocalists. After getting introduced to Grace Potter at Bonnaroo 2011, I bought tickets in a haze of vodka to see her this past November. The vodka actually “forced” me to purchase tickets for both nights at Stubbs. And when I went to the first night, I couldn’t scalp the second ticket for less than face value. So that second night is the first place I saw the Heartless Bastards live, opening for Grace.

Heartless Bastards is technically an Austin transplant from Ohio – or at least lead singer Erika Wennerstrom is – but after listening through their discography, I’m surprised they didn’t grow up in the hippy-infused blues mecca we like to call our own. Especially on their most recent album, Arrow, Heartless Bastards blend more “512 twang” into their already polished sound.

This 512-ness feels most present in Miss Erika’s vocals. Wennerstrom blends a beautiful, ethereal upper-range/head-voice alongside a dirtier belt in all of her albums. Typically she has a few tracks that prominently feature one of each, but in Arrow Erika doesn’t mind playing with her flip between the two – and dragging in more of a twang-y, singer songwriter blues similar to Marcia Ball, Lucinda Williams, or the Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard. With these two vocal qualities there’s also a third: her low range that almost is masculine and tenor-like in character.

“Marathon” – “sometimes in the middle we meet on this long race home” – starts the album with a slow saunter that builds into steady percussion. It also starts our intro into a Texas twang addition to Erika’s belt.

“Only for You” lets Wennerstrom show off the fragility in that flip between her hooty upper-range and her belt I mentioned earlier. And proved to me in concert, that she was a far better vocalist than Grace Potter. For one, this song is frank proof that she’s become fearless to switch between her three styles in the same song. Grace, on a good day, can claim two – and even then Grace’s lower range is pretty lackluster.

Out there on the Internet there are quite a few claims that the change in sound of the Heartless Bastards is calculated, that it’s trying to piggyback on the commercial success of the blues sounds of the Black Keys. I’m sure that Heartless Bastards have been influenced by the Black Keys, but I think it is unfair to say that Heartless Bastards have not had the same push to change the face of the blues revival we are now witnessing.

The tail end of this album, taking in other styles like hand drums in “Skin and Bone” and the more electric and ethereal styles in “Simple Feeling,” is proof of the experimentation going on here. Heartless Bastards is given the title of “side show” and “great opener” too often, and I hope that this album can help them shake free of that, even if it is from us Austinites who hope and pray that they’ll keep dragging in more of our sweet Hill Country twang.

– Nevin Watkins