Heartless Bastards are best when simply showcasing Wennerstrom's vocals.
A little country and a little rock 'n' roll, Thursday night's show at the High Noon was a perfect audio appetizer for the weekend. When Heartless Bastards passed through town last October, they brought along indie openers Futurebirds and Dana Falconberry. Last night's show provided a contrast with a strong country-rock vibe that suited the packed, western-themed venue. This was a show to throw back beers and stomp your feet to.
Hugh Bob & the Hustle, a Milwaukee-based quintet, were the sole opener. Frontman Hugh Bob Masterson wasn't always the lead of this group, but he's grown into the role. The band delivered a polished performance of rowdy bar anthems. Not every noisy alt-rock group can harmonize impressively, but these guys sure can.
Hailing from Butternut, in Wisconsin's Northwoods, Masterson writes songs that revel in rural themes. One such song is "North Country." With lyrics like "no power lines, no dead-end streets," the Hustle reminded the crowd that outside Madison's 77 square miles is a Wisconsin filled with tractors and trucks. A fast-tempo song was never too far away. "Cryin' Out Loud" and "Blame Me" worked well for dancing in cowboy boots -- or a decidedly more hipster type of footwear. "This Bar's a Prison" is a jukebox classic in the making. Its clap-along section was a real crowd pleaser.
Moving the concert from mostly country with a little rock to mostly rock with a little blues and twang, Heartless Bastards took the stage. Lead singer Erika Wennerstrom walked out to a crackling 1928 record of her own grandmother, and then the crowd erupted in cheers at the first chords of "The Mountain."
Channeling blues rock that reminds me of fellow Ohio natives the Black Keys, Heartless Bastards couple raw rock stylings with Wennerstrom's strong and striking vocals. When you see this group for the first time, the petite blond woman on the mic is a fantastic surprise. Her flinching facial expressions indicate that even she is surprised by the powerful sounds escaping her mouth during songs like "Only for You." The highlight of the night was likely the dramatic crescendo of "Marathon." Heartless Bastards are best when simply showcasing Wennerstrom's vocals, and then diving into a rowdy rock breakdown, which is just what this tune does.
The setlist was heavy with recent cuts from 2012's Arrow, like the thumping, head-bopping, "Got to Have Rock 'n' Roll." But the band also branched out a bit, showcasing the lesser-known song "The Highline," written for the independent film Winter in the Blood. Crowd favorite "Parted Ways" was played late in the set, ending the concert on a high note.