One aspect of television’s Austin City Limits (ACL TV) Texas music fans can appreciate is the show stays true to its roots by showcasing local talent on a regular basis. Considering the venerable live music program has the option to book internationally acclaimed acts Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails and recent Grammy winner Beck, it is reassuring to see producers persist in sharing the best Texas acts with the rest of the world. Monday evening’s taping with Austin-based Heartless Bastards (HB) continued the tradition with their second appearance on the show, their debut at ACL Live at the Moody Theater.
The quartet is now a touring quintet with the addition of Portland multi-instrumentalist, Kyleen King (Swansea) on keys and guitar. The additional player allows front woman, Erika Wennerstrom to focus on delivering emotion-packed vocals that serve as an additional instrument rather than merely a vehicle by which her crushing lyrics are delivered. Wennerstrom often plays acoustic while Mark Nathan handles the heavy lifting on guitar. A rock-solid rhythm section anchored by original member Dave Colvin (drums) and Jesse Ebaugh (bass) lends Heartless Bastards a genuine rock and roll sound.
The transition from alt-country to a heavier rock sound is apparent on their latest, aptly named release, Restless Ones. The album was featured in a setlist that shied away from Heartless Bastards’ earlier material, instead focusing on songs from the previous two recordings made on the Partisan Records imprint. The band led off with Gates of Dawn, eager to play their latest material for the hometown crowd. Wennerstrom claimed to be less nervous than her Season 35 (2009) appearance then promptly forgot to unmute a guitar pedal signaling a restart.
The set really got rolling with Black Cloud when Wennerstrom traded her acoustic for an electric. The tune highlighted both the skill of the band’s players and their vocalist’s most accessible side. Ironic considering the somber lyrics. That aspect of juxtaposing dark subject matter with an up tempo style is where Heartless Bastards hit their groove. The tone just feels right.
The same was true of Hi-Line, a song the band reworked for a film score. The chorus has a legitimate hook. In the heyday of radio, critics might have claimed it a guaranteed hit. We can guarantee both versions of the track are Heartless Bastards favorites of ours.
Apart from the aforementioned songs, the bulk of the set list was comprised of more recent material early in the performance with three songs from Arrow (2012) finishing the the set. Middle song, The Arrow Killed the Beast was coincidentally written in West Texas not far from El Paso’s Sonic Ranch where the band recorded this year’s album.
The encore provided ACL TV and Heartless Bastards the opportunity to pick up second takes of Black Cloud and opener Gates of Dawn before bringing the show to a close with the beautiful tune, Tristessa. The show will air in January as part of season 41. Check your local PBS listings for specific air dates and times.
Last week we caught the band at a KUTX live in-studio and briefly chatted with Ebaugh at Hole in Wall after the show. The bassist mentioned he was happy to be back home from a lengthy tour but the band was gearing up for a short run in Europe to venues the group has not yet performed at. After the familiarity of playing similar sets over the course of their American tour, Ebaugh brightened at the prospect of both taking a break from tour rigors at home during the Thanksgiving holiday and heading into the uncharted venues of Europe before Christmas. It is an ambitious schedule much like the tenacious Heartless Bastards.
Gates of Dawn
Gotta Have Rock and Roll
Wind Up Bird
Pocket Full of Thirst
Skin and Bone
Into the Light
Down in the Canyon
The Arrow Killed the Beast
Only for You
Gates of Dawn (take 2)
Black Cloud (take 2)