Following the success of Heartless Bastards‘ recent record, Arrow, expectations for their Belly Up show were high.
Tucson troubador Brian Lopez opened the evening with a set of evocative and resonant songs. Playing tracks from his latest album, Ultra, Lopez put on a rich, cinematic show complete with cello, violin, and great vocals. Nashville-based David Vandervelde took the second spot, immediately kicking into a pretty awesome “song about beer.” Lyrics included, “That fourth beer, that fifth beer, the sixth still tastes fine / Bring me more beer, you can keep the wine.” Vandervelde (who co-wrote “Beer” with the late Jay Bennett) is a killer guitarist; he and his band added a boozy energy to the evening that segued well into Heartless Bastards’ set.
Thanks to the success of Arrow, Heartless Bastards have been riding high lately. The uniformly excellent album delivered on potential only hinted at on the group’s previous efforts, dazzling critics and winning over scads of new fans. And so it was disappointing when, after taking to the stage while AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top” blared, the band began its set with a pair of jam-heavy, sloppy songs.
Heartless Bastards’ old-school rock chops were undeniable, but the chaotic execution and muddy mix during those opening tracks didn’t bode well for the rest of the set. The third song, “Witchy Poo” — off 2009’s The Mountain — fared slightly better, as Erika Wennestrom’s vocals finally punctured the dense wall of sound. But backing members Dave Colvin, Jesse Ebaugh, and Mark Nathan still seemed intent on playing every note with their balls out, and as a result even the quiet moments were loud. But then, something wonderful happened — Heartless Bastards started playing songs from Arrow.
Beginning with a rushed but inviting version of “Only for You,” the band proved beyond a doubt that their Arrow material is a cut above everything else they’ve done. The T. Rex-inspired “Got to Have Rock and Roll” upped the ante with its fat bass line and barbed guitar leads. The band also seemed more at ease, finally allowing their songs to stretch out and breathe.
Heartless Bastards continued their comeback with the peppy single “Parted Ways,” adorned by one of the night’s many tasteful guitar solos from Nathan. They followed with Arrow opener “Marathon,” working the crowd into a frenzy with the song’s cathartic slow-build. “The Arrow Killed the Beast” continued the hot streak, with Nathan’s lead line cutting like a knife through the smokey David Lynch vibe. The mid-set addition of Heidi Johnson on backup vocals also helped to add texture and emotion to the performance.
By the time they got to the driving rhythms of “Simple Feeling,” Heartless Bastards were operating like a well oiled machine. The set’s shaky start was quickly forgotten as the band knocked song after song out of the park. The comeback proved that the recipe for Heartless Bastards’ future success is simple: Just keep making albums as amazing as Arrow.
Photos – Heartless Bastards at the Belly Up – April 2, 2012