(September 29, 2015; OFF BROADWAY, Saint Louis MO)
A couple of notes regarding life waiting for a show (and this show in particular) to start… specifically, a bit about the above picture, as well as the randomness of meeting and interacting with other music lovers before the doors to the venue are opened. The gentleman in the picture above happened to be in front of me, just hanging out in front of Off Broadway. I watched this mantis for quite awhile before deciding to take the photo; he didn’t move, didn’t twitch… nothing. I was beginning to think that the critter was dead or, mayhap, it was a plastic toy placed there by a demented prankster; there were, of course, a couple other options: The mantis was, in fact, lost deep in prayer or, he was inscrutable as all get-out. Curiosity eventually got the better of me and I tapped the wall about an inch from his perch. The bugger was very much alive and quite annoyed that I had disturbed his meditation; his head swiveled in my direction and his glare seemed to bore into my very soul for the next twenty minutes. Boys and girls, you have no idea the depth of the despair one experiences when being stared down by such a creature. Now, in this line of work, I don’t usually have too many opportunities to talk to a lot of people (or soul-devouring giant green beasts) before a show. Sound check for the show pushed doors back about twenty minutes, so there was a lot of hanging around waiting for them to open. Things can get a little goofy (to wit, my encounter with the praying mantis) when a group of strangers are standing about with nothing to do. Usually, though, everyone is genial, cracking jokes, asking where everyone else is from… that sort of thing; tonight was no different. One of the more humorous exchanges took place between myself and another man… a man much larger than me: I was leaning against the wall, close to the door; he asked, “So… are you a security guard?” “No. Why? Do I really look that imposing?” “Uh… no. Not really.” We all had a good laugh. Eventually, things got around to, “Who are you here to see?” I told the little group that I really liked Heartless Bastards, but I was really looking forward to seeing Alberta Cross. Apparently, I was the only one familiar with the group, as the questions then became, “What do they sound like? Why do you like them?” Shortly after guaranteeing everybody that they would love Alberta Cross, the doors were opened and our little group scattered to our various vantage points for the show.
Over the past couple of years, Alberta Cross has undergone a transformation; the duo (guitarist and vocalist Petter Ericson Stakee and bassist Terry Wolfers) has been halved, with Stakee becoming – for all intents and purposes – Alberta Cross. With a new, self-titled album still a little over two weeks away, Stakee and “friends” brought the new show to Off Broadway, leaning heavily on music from the new album. Petter’s new band featured a childhood friend from Switzerland, drummer Fredrik Aspelin, guitarist Dan Iead (who also played a bit of pedal steel), trumpeter/keyboardist (at the same time, by the way) Dave Levy and bassist Rene Villanueva, on loan from the band Hacienda. Most of them have been playing together live since earlier this year, honing the new material to a rock and roll sheen and giving the tunes an overall tougher sound than the studio versions.
A couple of things were evident from the beginning: Petter’s voice, while a bit reedy on record and during acoustic performances, has a huskier – dare I say – a heavier rock quality that fits this band and this material quite well; likewise, his guitar playing takes on a bluesy quality (amidst a few insane rave-ups) that brings to mind such players as Keith Richard and, yes, even the late ’60s trinity of Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck. The rhythm section more than held their own, with Aspelin proving to be an adept timekeeper, as well as delivering some well-placed, occasionally adventurous fills and Villanueva’s sonorous bass lines holding everything together nicely. Levy added his trumpet (and synth-produced brass parts) primarily to the newer material, which has a soulful, Memphis feel about it. With Iead matching Stakee in the intensity market on guitar and adding the occasional plaintive strains of the pedal steel, the Memphis vibe was even more evident. The material from the ALBERTA CROSS album – “Western State,” “Ghost of Santa Fe” and “Isolation” among them – has set a new standard for Stakee and Alberta Cross (in whatever form) to build on for future live appearances, while the new, beefed up sound has also infused songs like “Money For the Weekend (Pocket Full of Shame)” with a renewed vitality. This show was everything I had envisioned it would be… and more! Though I would certainly have preferred a longer, headlining set from Petter and his group, I must admit that they were the perfect opener for Erika Wennerstrom’s rampaging Heartless Bastards.
The Bastards took the stage with Jesse Ebaugh on pedal steel, Mark Nathan on bass and super-utility player Kyleen King on second guitar for a hard-hitting version of “The Mountain.” Nathan and Ebaugh returned to their “natural” positions (Jesse on bass; Mark back to guitar) with Wennerstrom taking up an acoustic guitar for the first of several tracks from the recently released RESTLEES ONES, “Gates of Dawn,” which has a bluesy, sloppy, occasionally glammed-out Pretty Things meet Mott the Hoople vibe. Erika’s vocal style has been likened to Grace Slick but, I also get a touch of Bonnie Raitt… maybe that has more to do with her bluesy guitar and the strong Midwestern ethos she evokes through her lyrics. Whether she’s strumming or picking a beautiful melody or blasting jagged shards of noise and feedback, it is obvious that Erika Wennerstrom is a guitar player to be reckoned with… a force of nature, barely restrained by the confines of a simple pop tune; the fact that she makes it all seem so effortless merely adds to the mystique of Heartless Bastards‘ live sound.
Erika’s bandmates proved they were no slouches themselves, as evinced by their beefy, Zepplinesque playing on “Got To Have Rock and Roll,” with drummer Dave Colvin and bassist Jesse Ebaugh adopting the heavy, funky groove of Bonham and Jones and Mark Nathan delivering monster power chords and a brilliantly conceived solo. New music, including the atmospheric “Pocket Full of Thirst,” the sludgy hard rock of “Wind Up Bird” and the fragile balladry of “Into the Light,” dominated the set to great effect; generally speaking, veteran bands are lucky to be able to incorporate two or three new songs into a set of old favorites without causing undo anxiety among their fans. It is a compliment to the Bastards and their fans that at least half of the evening’s set comes from an album that is barely three months old. The show ended with an incredible version of the anthemic “Parted Ways,” from 2012’s ARROW release, which, as the tune morphed into the pseudo-psychedelia of “Tristessa,” saw the band lean their guitars against their amps before exiting the stage, leaving Erika alone at her microphone amid the throbbing feedback. With emotions running high throughout the set, this finale was like an emotional bloodletting, like a launderer ringing out the last vestiges of dampness from a favored shirt. And, that, dear friends, is what a night of great music should be like, with artist and audience investing every ounce of their beings into a performance, drawing off the emotions emanating from both the stage and the floor.