Wednesday night’s performance at the Riot Room was the Bastards’ first in KC since the February release of their latest album, Arrow, but they were at the Granada back in May. As in that spring performance, the Cincinnati band’s live appeal Wednesday rested heavily on the strength of Wennerstrom, the band’s lead singer, rhythm guitarist and the only member to stay in the band for its entire run. The three members backing Wennerstrom – guitarist Mark Nathan, bassist Jesse Ebaugh and drummer Dave Colvin – are all solid players, but they’re not showmen. Wennerstrom is a showwoman, and she doesn’t have to try to be one; it just comes naturally to her.
It’s her earthy voice, and her visible emotional investment in her lyrics, that really sell the Bastards’ rootsy, traditional rock numbers. Watching her perform is to know what it looks like to sing like you mean it. The vast majority of her singing is done with her eyes closed, and when she shifts into a more dynamically powerful passage, without fail she squints in such a way that projects “heartfelt” without looking ridiculous (like, say, Bruce Springsteen sometimes does). In the coziness of the Riot Room, everyone in attendance gets a real sense of what the Bastards’ music means to Wennerstrom, and seeing that up close makes her performance all the more powerful.
Though Arrow was naturally the source of much of the set, the Bastards opened with two tracks from past records. First, there was the slow-burning, country/folk-inflected title track from their previous album, 2009’s The Mountain. Then came the stomping straight rock of “Done Got Old” off 2004’s Stairs and Elevators, the group’s first full-length. Back at the Granada show, Wennerstrom messed up “Done Got Old” to the point that she felt compelled to admit it to the audience; this time, she nailed it. Soon, the group settled into concentrating on the highlights off Arrow, including “Skin and Bone,” “The Arrow Killed the Beast,” “Parted Ways” and a particularly expressive performance of “Only For You” that showcased Wennerstrom’s falsetto. The rest of the band got a few isolated moments to shine here and there; for example, “Only For You” ended with solos by Nathan and Ebaugh, and overall, it’s a solid kick to hear the entire band roar through its loudest instrumental breaks. But make no mistake – Wennerstrom is the bulk of the band’s live appeal.
The downside of the Bastards’ 90-minute show, for me, was similar to the downside to the May show, and it comes down mostly to personal preference. Of course the set is going to be heavy on the new album, but I’d still like to hear a little more from earlier albums, particularly Stairs and Elevators. Second, their two-song encore ended with a cover – which is no problem if it’s the right cover. In this case, the band offered up the immediately recognizable opening chords of Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “Takin’ Care of Business,” and Wennerstrom and Ebaugh traded lead vocals. It’s a song that stylistically, at least, fits well enough with the rest of the group’s set, and the crowd seemed pleased. But for me, “Takin’ Care of Business” is one of the sillier classic rock songs out there, and I would’ve liked to see a different closer – perhaps Stairs and Elevators opening cut “Gray,” which the Bastards used for their encore at the Granada show but left out this time around. But those are minor complaints; Heartless Bastards are more than worth seeing, particularly in a smaller venue.
Opening for the Bastards was Austin band Frank Smith; yep, that’s a band, not a guy. Smith trades in Southern-flavored rock/alt-country, but listening to a few songs of theirs on Spotify wouldn’t really give you an indication of what they sounded like in about 40 minutes of action on Wednesday. With the exception of a couple of songs, their set was garage-y and searingly loud, with singer-guitarist Fr… I mean, Aaron Sinclair singing with a light, not-overbearing twang. They’re worth hearing for both Heartless Bastards fans and others who like rootsy stuff; “Before You Were Born” and “Hearing Voices,” both off recent album Before You Were Born, offer a good sample of their sound.