The Heartless Bastards are late getting to their show at Little Brothers in Columbus, Ohio, the price of the previous day's layover at home in Cincinnati. But the trio's tardiness is understandable for a band that's been touring hard for nearly a year, those 24 hours in their own apartments, bars and bedrooms seemed to last just as long.
"We never do very well in Columbus, anyway," vocalist and guitarist Erika Wennerstrom says before the show. Chalk that falsehood up to her unassuming nature, because three hours later they confront a good turnout for an indie band 75 sweaty people swallowing her power chords. The Heartless Bastards have arrived.
This tour is part of a swing with the Soledad Brothers, who are no strangers to Detroit. Oddly though, for as much as they've been around, the closest the Bastards have come to the D is a gig last year in Ann Arbor. The Heartless Bastards are another Ohio band with a feel for what flies in Detroit rock 'n' roll, and they're eager to prove it. They'll have that chance this week.
Like the Soledads, the Heartless Bastards ride the nexus between blues and rock 'n' roll, combining the sturdy bottom-end stomp of bassist Mike Lamping and drummer Kevin Vaughn with Wennerstrom's gold Les Paul and striking, wailing voice. On Stairs and Elevators, the band's 2005 debut, Wennerstrom alternates between confessional admission and a tone bordering on wit's-end, bottle-smashing anger. She projects the haunt of a thousand skidding Midwestern nights, the brooding, burly shadows of thunderclouds gathering over the Ohio River, and the conflicting desire to either make something of herself or forget about everything with a few more drinks and the inevitable, ugly depression. There's blues here, for sure the Bastards turn in a harrowing cover of Junior Kimbrough's "Done Got Old" but, even more than that, Stairs is personal and primitive, the sound of a someone searching for vindication and struggling with boredom, all the while waiting for that freight train to lumber on past. "And now my virtue is way past its curfew," Wennerstrom sings in "Onions." "I got to get out of this town."
She's a dynamo on stage. The guitar looks big in her hands, but it sounds even bigger and she has the voice to match. Which is even more disarming because, offstage, she speaks with a homespun, personable drawl.
Lamping, meanwhile, is soft-spoken and articulate, while Vaughn sits ready with a joke. They talk about growing up with classic rock radio, brawny stations with nicknames like "The Fox" and "The Loop," and how the format seems somehow ingrained into Midwestern culture, offering budding musicians and singers templates to rock to, from Cream and Sabbath to Eddie Money and Alice Cooper. And the trio acknowledges classic rock's effect on their own sound. They definitely draw from blues music's primary sources, but also that music's heady, heavy influence on the behemoths of 1970s rock.
When the Heartless Bastards get on stage and play, it's the perfect, primal intensity of the power trio that shines through, singeing the faces of all the wayward guys in the audience, who just want to hear someone sing about being as lost, lonely and bored as they are, someone who's as fed up with that situation and as mad as they are.
Stairs and Elevators was issued by Fat Possum in February 2005, and almost immediately the Heartless Bastards were out on tour. Along the way the album drew critical raves from Rolling Stone and even landed Wennerstrom and Lamping in the studios of NPR's Morning Edition. It was a little overwhelming.
"I literally couldn't talk," Wennerstrom says of the experience, describing enormous microphones jutting from the studio's ceiling and the collected professionalism of NPR host Steve Inskeep. She goes on to laud the tireless work of Fat Possum's tiny staff in making the segment happen, a miniature endorsement of hands-on indie label dedication if there ever was one. And the hard work paid off, even if Wennerstrom's nerves took a hit sales of Stairs and Elevators spiked and show attendance rose. More touring followed, as well as the recording of a new album, which Fat Possum will release later this year. In the meantime, the label's dogged promotional arm is at it again.
After this Columbus show, the Bastards fly to Los Angeles, where they'll perform a song in a pilot being filmed for NBC. "It's something about a summer camp," Vaughn says, laughing at the sheer, exciting weirdness of it all.
Home one day, playing a show the next, and grinning for the lens tomorrow it's all in a day's work. "Sometimes people will come up to us after a show and be like, 'We heard you or your song on the radio,' and I'll be like, 'What?'" Wennerstrom says with a laugh. Because despite the Morning Edition adventure and the TV pilot appearances to come, as well as respectable support for Stairs and Elevators at college radio, like most indie bands, the Heartless Bastards know it's the road that's going to validate their hard work, and their desire for more. Late nights in clubs like Little Brothers where they can elongate the roiling, pounding climaxes that punctuate such Stairs and Elevators tracks as "Will Song" and "My Maker" is where Wennerstrom can truly sell the scalding plea of a song like "New Resolution." "The sadness makes me drown," she sings in that one. "And I really want to live."