Heartless Bastards: Arrow

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One of life’s pleasures is stumbling upon great new music in unexpected places.

On a recent trip to San Antonio I was out to dinner and felt like hearing some live music afterwards. Not knowing anything about the music scene in San Antonio, I asked the younger, hipper folks at the next table if there were any music venues nearby. They suggested heading over to Sam’s Burger Joint, which I must admit did not sound promising. But I decided to give the small music venue connected to it a look.

Only rarely have I had the experience of knowing from the first note that a band has something special going on. I remember walking into the old Tower Records on Broadway in New York City in 1987 just after Guns ‘N Roses’ Appetite For Destruction was released and hearing the lightening storm opening of “Welcome To The Jungle.”  I felt like I had been slapped in the face. I asked the guy behind the counter what I was hearing and he handed me the album. I have no memory of the record I had gone to Tower Records to buy, but I will remember forever leaving with Appetite For Destruction.

Heartless Bastards, who were playing Sam’s Burger Joint that night, are not Guns ‘N Roses. But I was nonetheless fully absorbed from the first note that came my way and without hesitation forked over the cover charge.

Heartless Bastards is a great band. You can look elsewhere for vital statistics and factoids. Suffice it to say the band, now hailing from Austin, features Erika Wennerstrom on vocals and guitars. They have released four albums and the tunes they played that night came primarily from their most recent album, Arrow (2012).

Heartless Bastards is a unique blend of many roots and classic rock influences. I was immediately caught by the melodic dissonance of “Marathon” which kept building and building to a beautiful thrashing of raw guitar chords and cymbals that reminded me of the Velvet Underground’s “Ocean” from 1969: The Velvet Underground Live. It also had the sweeping, momentum-churning quality of Pearl Jam’s “Oceans” from their first album. (I know, perhaps too much time at the beach for me, although in my defense, it sounded nothing like Led Zeppelin’s “The Ocean”).

Down in the Canyon” provided the vehicle for the night’s most extended jam. There were heavy metal power chords softened by a grunge sensibility with an almost psychedelic overlay. It reminded me of Neil Young’s “Cortez The Killer” from Live Rust.

Only For You” is perhaps the album’s most pop-like track. It forces you onto your feet with its steady beat and neat little guitar riffs that are the backbone of the tune. It reminded me of the Alabama Shakes’ “Hold On.”  In fact, throughout the show in San Antonio I heard a blend of the Velvet Underground and Alabama Shakes — a great combination.

There are some other successful cross-currents as well. “Low Low Low” mixes bluegrass elements and the African American field holler tradition, while “Parted Ways” initially presents with a mild country twang that harkens to the Stones’ “Dead Flowers” but then becomes a full-fledged rock tune complete with an outstanding outro jam that would make Lou Reed proud.  Check out the video I posted above of the band performing the track in the studio.

In short, there is a lot going on with this band, all of it good.  Their new album, Restless Ones, will be released on June 16, 2015.  Mark your calendars.  And try to check them out on their current tour.

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