It’s not too often that we get 70 degree weather at the tail end of December, but in Cleveland, nearly anything is possible. So with mere hours left in the year, Brian and I were fortunate enough to catch Heartless Bastards at the Beachland Ballroom on the 27th, along with two other Ohio acts, Beaten Awake and Suede Brothers. (editor’s note: Kevin started this review, and I, Brian, took over about halfway through and finished it. In a nod to consistency, I’ve left the “I”s as Kevin and referred to myself in the third person, like a rapper.)
The Beachland Ballroom is an old Croatian Hall located on the dicey east side of Cleveland. The area underwent a sort of renaissance a few years back, but one look at the street tells us that the rebirth was aborted. However, like a beacon, the neon lights of the Beachland bring in some great indie acts year in and year out. It’s setup alone is pretty interesting. There are two stages. One is in a tavern, blocked off from the larger ballroom area. So, on any given night, two bands can play simultaneously and each venue has separate entrances. The last time we saw Heartless Bastards, they played the much smaller tavern area. Needless to say, with increased buzz and a new album coming out in a couple months, they’ve moved onto the more elusive 500-750 person capacity ballroom.
Brian was running late, on account of, no doubt, some horror story involving veganism. I got the treat of catching the Suede Brothers, a young local Cleveland three-piece that pounded me in the face for a few songs. The singer sounded like Geddy Lee, but the band itself sounded like some throwback Deep Purple with a touch of Led Zeppelin. Brian finally wandered in during the last song. It’s really too bad, too. I think this band is someone to take note of. They’ve switched names a couple of times and reformed, so that can’t be a good sign. However, the lead singer wails on the guitar, and the bassist, all headbanging and hair whipping aside, is a pro.
We got to look at the menu during the break. One of the staples of the Beachland, the deep-fried PB & J sandwich, has sadly been removed. The bar, while super dive-chic, caters a pretty sophisticated menu, with fried Risotto cakes, a Slovenian beer-poached sausage (hey, we’re in Cleveland), a BBQ tofu burger, and my favorite, the Danny Greene Burger, named after a local mobster that was killed by a car-bomb a couple decades ago. Yahoo for clever local fare, eh?
One of the great things about the Beachland is that there isn’t much of a backstage. Bands pretty much hang out in the bar before they go on. Brian stumbled into Erica Wennerstrom of Heartless Bastards. She was drinking Jameson early, which we believe led to such a great show.
Beaten Awake, a band from Kent, Ohio just down the road, followed Suede Brothers. Beaten Awake has received a little more airplay and their 2007 album Let’s Get Simplified got some decent emusic reviews and locally they’re pretty well known. Their set was a big musical chairs-fest, each member shifting to different instruments. Drummer out to play bass, singer to keys, etc. This was nice for the first three songs, but the downtime was rough to deal with. The guys certainly kept the audience entertained, however, with the deadpan humor and local jokes. Brian and I both agreed that the band is still trying to figure out what they want to be. One one hand, they’re a spaced out, mellow, synthesizer band. On the other, the singer gets energetic and they turn into a rock band. We will say that the last song they played tore the house down. Yeah, yeah. Bring on Heartless Bastards….
Heartless Bastards is an excellent band, and they absolutely piqued our interest to see what this new record is going to be all about. There were different lineups for Stairs and Elevators LP and the follow up, All this Time; for the upcoming release The Mountain, the original drummer and a different bassist are on board. Brian and I were excited to see the old troops back together. I’ve been talking for weeks about how I want them to go back to the Stairs stuff. It was hard, bluesy, and Erica haunts with her raspy voice.
Wennerstrom appears to play Gibson guitars exclusively, and she rolled onto the stage with a gold Les Paul, an acoustic electric, a dreadnought, and a keyboard. Guess what? The drummer had drumsticks. Bass player had a bass. Let’s go. Twenty songs later, Brian and I were happy we paid the 12 bucks. They began with “No Pointing Arrows” off of All This Time. The Fender and Vox amps howled. Heartless Bastards has this great ability to make the blues sexy, and when they played “Blue Day” the fuzzy reverb and deep drums just smoked the crowd.
There was a bit of an emphasis on the Stairs material and the crowd, a uniquely Cleveland mix of hicks, hipsters, yuppies and back-alley trash, was hooked in from the moment the band launched into “New Resolution.” The return of the original drummer was a bonus here on the repetitive and cacophonous cadence; there were not a lot of unshaking asses for the more raucous numbers for most of the night.
The setlist was crafted to keep folks moving; while there aren’t a lot of slow ballads in the HB oeuvre, they didn’t take their feet of the gas until seven songs deep, when they went for the anthemic “Came a Long Way.” The slowly building vocal kept everyone pretty rapt; while there were lots of individual moments throughout the night when Wennerstrom’s emotional delivery was stunning, the conclusion of this one raised the hairs on one’s neck; Wennerstrom rocked the slow solo, hit the stompbox and added distortion throughout til the last note.
We were treated with several tunes that are most likely from the soon to be released album, The Mountain; we can confirm that they completely rock and will be deserving of your careful attention on February 2. However, if we’re being honest, the principal reason to see the Heartless Bastards live right now is for songs like “Into the Open,” “Swamp Song,” and “Runnin’.” I feel confident that the new songs will grab attention and develop into crushing live performances, but for the moment I have a connection to the old stuff; I felt like an insider hearing new material, but it’s the old stuff that still grabs me by the throat.
Heartless Bastards appear to be keenly aware of the appeal of those standout tracks. “Swamp Song” came in and kicked off the final four songs in the set and sandwiched two songs that were new to us before the closer, “Onions.” “Swamp Song” was really when the show peaked. Brian and I figured we could have left after that song to beat the traffic (we didn’t, thankfully). The changes were atomic; everyone was locked in by this point. The obvious brains behind the outfit is Wennerstrom, but the drummer and bass player are amazingly talented as well. Make no mistakes, all three come to play. After “Onions,” I felt like I ran a marathon. It was clear that they were coming back, but I wasn’t sure how they were going to match the swampy intensity in an encore.
Happily, they thought of this. They opened the encore with two tremendously mellow acoustic songs. Just Wennerstrom and bassist, Jesse Ebaugh, took things down a notch with two songs that were unfamiliar to us, but awesome. I’m curious to see if there’s a move towards more of this sort of thing on the new album. An acoustic track or two would certainly be a change. After the acoustic jam, the drummer, Dave Colvin, returned to the stage for “Grey” and “Runnin’.” No more mellowness for the finish. “Runnin’” is an absolute classic and is even better live; Wennerstrom’s vocals shone through here, even after belting twenty songs already. Happily, even though they’re clearly a finely honed live act, they can still take and crack a joke. Right before launching into the vocals, Wennerstom stopped abruptly and declared, “Am I out of tune? I fucked up that moment.” After tuning, she launched back in and left the crowd with a mammoth finish. The Heartless Bastards rocked, all night, without apology or exception.
A few other scattered observations are worth mentioning. Dave Colvin, the drummer, is a monster; he rides the crash all song. At one point he shattered a stick and luanched it into the folds of the curtain behind the stage, never missing a beat. It’s a little thing, but badass. Jesse Ebaugh was coaxing fascinating sounds from his bass all night; when he kicked in during “Runnin’,” it almost sounded like a Stax-era horn section. Wennerstrom exuded a bluesy energy all night and absolutely wailed for the entire show; I’m imaging a lot of green tea in her near future.
To wrap up the night, Brian stole the setlist, because that is how he rolls.
If you don’t have these albums yet, buy them. Sleep on the sidewalk of your local record store on February 2 to get the new release. See this band live if they come to within 200 miles of your house (dates are scheduled through the next through months; you can examine them at http://www.theheartlessbastards.com). The Heartless Bastards epitomize what we’re about: great songs, amazing delivery and ass-kicking.