It’s been an uncertain time for Ann and Nancy Wilson regarding the fate of their band Heart, which is touring again this summer after a hiatus stemming from an unfortunate family dispute (details here). Two summers might not seem like a long break for a rock outfit that’s been around for 45 years, but Heart fans were left wondering if the Wilsons’ musical partnership could survive the rift.
Since then, Ann Wilson has toured solo for the first time (The Ann Wilson Thing), performing a smorgasbord of cherry-picked covers that also resulted in an album, ‘Immortal,’ which dropped last year. Nancy Wilson, meanwhile, formed Roadcase Royale with front-woman Liz Warfield (from Prince’s New Power Generation) and released the album ‘First Things First,’ in 2017. Earlier this year, however, the Wilsons announced this summer’s ‘Love Alive’ tour, acknowledging that they’d mended fences. Heart – now a seven-piece band with three new members — was in excellent form for their return to Darien Lake last Friday night.
Opening with a deep cut from 1980’s ‘Bebe Le Strange,’ “Rockin’ Heaven Down” (incidentally, performed for the first time on this tour since 1982) set an appropriate tone with its mid-tempo grind for a show that seemed focused on nuance and groove. An extended “Magic Man” followed, with newly minted member Dan Walker providing the signature keyboard breakdown. Walker also shone when playing the accordion during a cover of Paul Simon’s “The Boxer,” and on piano through “Even It Up,” which traded some of the original’s controlled tension for a looser, bluesier feel. During the introduction to the latter — an anti-sexism battle cry of sorts — Ann Wilson remarked that, “Both sexes have come a long, long way.” Her gentle, forgiving tone elicited a enthusiastic crowd response from an audience that seemed determined to have a good time.
Guitarist Craig Bartok (on board since 2004) remains the longest standing band member besides the Wilsons, and now he’s got Prince protégé Ryan Waters (also from Roadcase Royale) splitting the heavy lifting with himself and Nancy Wilson, making for a total of three players shifting between lead and rhythm guitar. With the bottom end shared among newcomer Andy Stoller (bass) and drummer Denny Fongheiser (who played with Heart briefly in the mid-1990’s), the new lineup projects a sturdy, built-tough sound that performs well on edgier tunes like “Crazy On You,” which closed Friday’s main set, and “Straight On,” which was segued into after a partial cover of the Whitefield/Strong classic, “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” made famous by Gladys Knight and Marvin Gaye. A new arrangement of “Dog & Butterfly” managed to utilize the whole band without letting unnecessary adornments weigh down a fairly delicate song.
But the current touring version of Heart really bared its teeth Friday night with some slow –building choices that showcased their earlier progressive leanings. 1978’s “Mistral Wind,” a mysterious, medieval-feeling tale about an inspirational wind that can abscond with one’s sanity, blanketed the crowd with an appropriately captivated hush. Earlier on, “Love Alive,” from 1977’s ‘Little Queen’ triumphed with its intricate guitar riffs and resplendent harmonies. And Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” performed during the three song encore, stood as a reminder of Heart’s hard-rock roots while also doubling as a vocal showcase for Ann Wilson, who brought her flute back into the mix multiple times. All three are songs that build careful tension and then, to varying degrees, burst open, creating a suite-like feel that allows the band to show off two sides of itself within the same number. Elsewhere, a cover of Yes’s “Your Move” offered vintage bits of philosophical wisdom, and Wilson seemed to take special pleasure in singing the lines, “Don’t surround yourself with yourself/Move on back two squares.”
Ann Wilson’s rock goddess pipes remain impressive, though after years of regular touring since Heart’s return to the road in 2002, it’s clear that she’s making more conservative choices with how and when she uses her instrument rather than belting at every opportunity. Her sister sang harmony throughout (along with the rest of the band), repeatedly nailing down the blended sound of their voices that’s essential to their musical signature. Nancy also sang lead and switched to mandolin for a run through 1985’s wistful “These Dreams.”
Overall, Heart still projects a powerful sound, from the front of the stage all the way through to the back, even on (vocally demanding) 1980’s power ballads like “What About Love” and “Alone.” It was certainly in full evidence on Friday night. And if anything, the hiatus seems to have imbued the Wilson sisters with renewed sense of purpose. They stayed away from the new material included on the pair of mostly-excellent Heart albums that’ve surfaced since 2010, opting instead for classic hits, vintage deep cuts and well-known covers. For a summer shed tour, it felt exactly right.
Early opener Elle King delivered a short set of tunes bubbling with southern-rock swagger, her blues-savvy five-piece providing ample support for her voice, which borrows a bit from the waifish, so-called ‘indie-girl sound’ but projects significantly more power when she really digs in.
Joan Jett succeeded with no-bullshit rock basics. With The Blackhearts behind her, including longtime associate Kenny Laguna, Jett exuded punky indifference through a generous mid-evening set that included her renowned covers of Gary Glitter’s “Do You Wanna Touch Me” and “Crimson and Clover” (Tommy James & the Shondells) alongside a few Runaways nuggets. Her fun-loving version of “Love is All Around” (from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show”) and a newer song, “Fresh Start” (from her autobiographical documentary, ‘Bad Reputation’) were definite highlights, delivered with just the right amount of sneer. Jett, 60, said it was her first night on the Heart tour (which also features Brandi Carlile and Sheryl Crow in other cities), but she’s been on the road in other capacities all year and, at times, seemed a bit weary. Nonetheless, by her closing cover of Sly Stone’s “Everyday People” she’d perked up significantly.