Heartless Bastards and Old 97’s Send Them Home Smiling

May 11th, 2016

Old 97’s/Heartless Bastards – Music Hall of Williamsburg – May 10, 2016

Heartless Bastards

Heartless Bastards

Early in her band’s set last night, Erika Wennerstrom of Heartless Bastards sang, “Whenever you are feeling down, you gotta have, gotta have, you gotta have rock and roll.” Well, if you had the blues, Music Hall of Williamsburg was the place to be as the show—a double bill with Old 97’s—was maxed out with enough rocking to cheer up everyone in the venue. The two groups are flipping the headliner slot on their tour, and on Tuesday, Old 97’s got things going first with a raucous set of their Texas-sized country-rock music. Without a new album to promote, they were free to play to the crowd with their set, from “Niteclub,” with its reference to being “1,800 miles from Manhattan,” to “Victoria,” in which frontman Rhett Miller’s windmill guitar strumming felt almost like he was cranking up an old-time pickup truck. The frenetic fun of “Doreen” was a highlight, guitars and drums reaching a frenzy with everyone in the crowd singing away their worries.

Heartless Bastards, also between albums, built a monster 90-minute set of songs from across their entire catalog, each feeling like a landmark on a long road trip through American rock and roll. They were dialed in from the get-go, opening with “The Mountain,” Wennerstrom’s signature voice mixing with pedal steel to create a chilling, ethereal sound as the band was silhouetted in red. Indeed, the blank backdrop behind them alternated between bold colors for each song, adding a characteristic mood. So “Skin and Bone,” with its crisp acoustic guitars, was paired with a sunny lilac-and-yellow palette, and the breakout “Hold Your Head High” was enhanced with oranges and reds to match the slow-burn smoldering embers of the melodies—and hot pink went perfectly with the gorgeous grooving of “Only for You.”

The set featured multiple peaks when the entire group morphed into a single rocking entity on songs like the recently dusted off “Blue Day,” from 2006’s All This Time, guitars, bass and drums going into rock and roll overdrive, and the ecstatic meltdown of “Down in the Canyon,” accompanied by flashing white lights that felt like lightning in a torrential summer downpour. Backed by blue and pink, as if singing to baby boys and girls, Heartless Bastards opened their encore with the lullabylike “Low Low Low,” four acoustic guitars and shakers with Wennerstrom singing sweetly about feeling sunshine on her skin. For those in the room still feeling down, not to worry, there was one more rock-out left, the band closing in climactic fashion with a jam that went through several build-and-release cycles before sending the smiling crowd on their way. —A. Stein | @Neddyo