The tropes of outlaw country rock are laid more bare than those of any genre, and this is a struggle that Ohio's Heartless Bastards confront head-on on their new record, Restless Ones. A steely departure from their 2012 record Arrow, Restless Ones finds Erika Wennerstrom and her band trading trail grit for axle grease in an effort to urbanize their drifter overtures (the album cover is a really obvious metaphor for all this). And though Heartless Bastards have indeed slicked up their sound on the album, they have certainly not forgotten how to ramble.
As the screen lifted at First Avenue, Heartless Bastards took the stage to a 1930s recording of Wennerstrom's grandmother singing, which quickly (and inexplicably) built into a thunder of locomotive drums and buzzing amplifiers. Boot planted firmly in the first of the evening's many mudholes, the band launched into some of their most recognizable hits, including "Simple Feeling" and Restless Ones single "Gates of Dawn." But from there, everything devolved into mush.
A parade of three-guitar overdrive and touchtone tom-tom fills pumped a faceless "Heineken ad music" feel into the room. Much like the antique recording of Wennerstrom's grandma, no movement that the Bastards made felt purposeful. Heartless Bastards are not a band that dredges deep for their metaphors — they have a song about being sad titled "Gray" — but in the din, Wennerstrom's lyrics felt rote and characterless. On "The Mountain," she wailed about taking her woes "on down the line," transitioning into "Could Be So Happy," wherein she co-opted a threadbare cliche to sing, "I'm gonna make it to the midnight train." In what was ultimately a betrayal of the band's intention on Restless Ones, Heartless Bastards galloped through every trope in their genre, at times veering into the territory of Three Doors Down or Bachman Turner Overdrive, all the while stampeding across each other's toes in a bid for attention.
Far beyond the realm of good-timin' showmanship, each band member took turns embellishing. Despite Wennerstrom's valkyrie-like attempts to cut through the din, she was constantly upstaged by Mark Nathan's incessant geetar and drummer Dave Colvin's belligerent stream of fills. In a totally unbalanced and frankly exhausting middle, the three volleyed for their share of the spotlight, resulting in a textureless gob of feedback-addled chords, busy percussion, and hyperbolic wails. With each song, the indulgence plumbed deeper, Nathan laboring over more and more bit parts (he soloed three times on "Parted Ways"). Though Wennerstrom — who, despite this review, is an excellent performer — eventually reclaimed her right at the presiding force on stage with tempestuous turns on "Only for You" and "Parted Ways," her persistence came too late. By the time the band got to the encore, it'd been nearly two hours of plastering one-upmanship.
It wasn't all embodying cliches for the Heartless Bastards last night, though. In their encore, the countrified garage revivalists took the time to solve a troublesome old platitude by proving that it is indeed better to burn out than to fade away.
In what was an amorphous three-song addendum, the Bastards drifted waywardly between tunes, ultimately leaving the stage one by one as Wennerstrom finished the closing notes of "Tristessa," her axe face-down on the stage. But the payoff was spoiled. The 45 minutes leading into the show's denouement had felt like a drawn-out encore anyway, so there was no revelry. Only relief. It'd been a long trail.
Critic's bias: After seeing what Death Grips did to First Ave on Saturday, I've had my context for good and bad harshly skewed. That being said, the main draw for me was Craig Finn. Speaking of which ...
Notes on the opener: Heartless Bastards must've had this date circled on the calendar as the show where they'd undoubtedly be upstaged by Finn, and it seems like they spent the bulk of their two-hour set trying to compensate for how impressive he was. From playing "Mission Viejo" with original Lifter Puller guitarist Steve Barone to the stipped-down, slinky take on "Certain Songs" to the heartfelt new single "Newmyer's Roof," Finn delivered in his typical bashful, passionate way. Feel free to read into Finn's post-"Viejo" comment: "If you like that song and Lifter Puller, then you'll probably want to go see Dillinger Four on Saturday." He also confirmed that Barone will be at the show, so ...
Random notebook dump: Craig Finn loves Friday Night Lights, and Heartless Bastards played a cameo in Season 4. Think they talk about that in the green room? Probably do.
The crowd: I was squarely in the minority, I know this. The crowd ate up every second of the HBs' coursing, solo-riddled bonanza. Every skinny-legged dad and every earnestly drunk townie yelped and cowboy whistled for more. Some really astonishing dancing, though.
Overheard in the crowd: "Fuckin' VODKA SODAAAAAAAAA."
Ed note: This setlist could be totally inaccurate. It eventually became impossible to tell where one song ended and another began. I think there was a "Gates of Dawn" reprise somewhere toward the end, but who knows.
Gates of Dawn
Got to Have Rock and Roll
Pocket Full of Thirst
Into The Light
Could Be So Happy
Down in the Canyon
Late in the Night
Wind Up Bird
Only for You
Early in the Morning
Nothing Seems the Same