Heart to hold

Ann and Nancy Wilson aren't a nostalgia act...yet

In last year's Broadway revue I'm Still Here, Damn It!, since memorialized on CD, one of Sandra Bernhard's best rants involves the Lilith Fair and how performers such as Jewel and Sarah McLachlan would wither like wallflowers in the Texas sun beside the female FM-radio rock icons of her late teens and early 20s.

"I don't know how many more of these waifish alternative singers I can take," Bernhard fumes to a howling audience. "'I'm fed up, I'm rich, I'm fucked over, I'm bitter, I'm confused.' Honey, just get up out of that dirty bathtub for starters and work your way forward [referring to Fiona Apple's "Criminal" video]." Continuing, Bernhard blasts, "Give me an old-fashioned, sweaty, big-titty bitch of rock and roll, please. Give me Joan Jett with a shag haircut and a black eye..."

The list continues until it comes to one of Bernhard's longtime obsessions -- Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart. Bernhard is often accused of irony when she's dead serious; one such instance is her avowal of a desire to sing like Ann Wilson. She adores the music of Heart, and it turns out her comparisons between that 25-year-old classic rock stalwart and the oft-hyped Lilith Fair are apt. (Bernhard, talking about Wilson and her other fave ballsy female rockers: "They sang it, they snorted it, they fucked it. These women did things on the road that would break those little [Lilith] bitches in half.") As 49-year-old Ann Wilson travels 34 North American cities in her first acoustic duet tour with guitarist, co-writer, vocalist, and sister Nancy -- sans the name Heart -- Wilson admits they were snubbed by Lilith organizers.

Wait, which one is the dog and which is the butterfly? Nancy and Ann Wilson are still crazy on you after all these years.
Wait, which one is the dog and which is the butterfly? Nancy and Ann Wilson are still crazy on you after all these years.

"We called them," she relates from an East Coast hotel room. "I was phoning all the time, saying, 'Look over here.' They never got around to hiring us. Isn't that interesting? But I know it's all very political. For one thing, we didn't have anything new out this year."

Surveying the landscape of corporate-monopolized commercial radio, Wilson puts the slight in perspective -- without naming names. "There are billions of female voices being played out there," she says. "But there's so much mediocrity. And it's not the fault of the 'sexist rock and roll brotherhood.' It's the fault of women artists saying, 'I'm going to simper, I'm going to strum my guitar lightly, I'm going to sing in this little baby voice.'"

Wilson is talking softly to save herself for a concert that night, but when she starts to get riled up, her voice raises slightly. Anyone who's ever appreciated her Zeppelin-soaked wall of wail thrown across '70s Heart hits such as "Crazy on You," "Barracuda," and "Magic Man" knows that voice. And come to think of it, maybe it's just as well the Lilith gals, for their own sake, didn't extend a hand to Ann and Nancy. Ann, who's always counted Robert Plant and Roger Daltrey as bigger influences than Joni Mitchell or Linda Ronstadt, just isn't girly enough for that festival's neo-folk synchronized ovulation. Imagine Jewel at the mike under the giant awning of an outdoor stage, strumming her guitar between sobs and caterwauling bad poetry. The mike feed fizzles out, the amps die, and suddenly Jewel has Wilson beside her, one of those unexpected rock-star cameos. Waves from the unplugged sonic boom of Ann Wilson's megaphone vocals consume Jewel like a barracuda gulping a goldfish. Not even worthy of a belch.

"Sometimes I'm still surprised that they have Best Female Vocalist and Best Male Vocalist at the Grammys," she mentions, a bit facetiously. "Why isn't it just Best Vocalist?"

The question might sound like a bit of tough-cookie rhetoric. Yet Heart's five albums between 1975 and 1979 -- Dreamboat Annie, Little Queen, Magazine, Dog and Butterfly, and Bebe Le Strange -- have guaranteed that the Wilson sisters are the only consistent female presence besides Stevie Nicks on classic-rock radio. Listeners barely blink hearing Ann's wide-octave strut played in a set that includes Plant, Bon Scott, Steve Perry, and Freddie Mercury.

Somewhat surprisingly, the producers of Rolling Stone's recent three-disc Women in Rock compilation did blink -- there's nary a Heart song included from the group's most fertile period. Maybe overproduced mid-'80s power ballads such as "Alone" and "These Dreams" (which have secured Ann and Nancy their place at the adult-contemporary trough) were the cumulative hangover after Heart's delirious heyday, and the Rolling Stone compilers slept the whole catalog off. Or maybe they just forgot that Ann and Nancy Wilson are chicks who are supposed to be filed under that special, segregated female category.

It's not how Heart's musical past is archived that most worries Ann at the moment. Considering they've sold more than 30 million albums and still get daily radio exposure all over the world with their old material, she doesn't expect her past to evaporate anytime soon. She and Nancy have the clout to do whatever arcane side projects they desire right up until the pair of them are forced to mount the stage on walkers. The Seattle Times recently reported a bidding war among labels for the sisters' upcoming album of new material, to be recorded after they finish the current tour showcasing some of it. Ann confirms that they've probably settled with a label, although talks are still under way. What seems to cloud the horizon right now is one small word, and its appearance (or not) is definitely influencing their choice of record companies.

"There are still so many expectations with the name Heart," Ann laments. "Right now, we're negotiating with the [new] label about what to call the album. I don't know if people need more recognizability than Ann and Nancy Wilson, but we'll see. It does get harder and harder the more of a past you have to stay fresh, to say we still have goals beyond this.

"I think for a while there I was considering it a burden," Ann says of the Heart catalog. "But now that we're out there playing these old songs in a new way, it's great seeing people get off. I'd be pretty callous if I didn't get a thrill out of seeing someone really get into 'Dog and Butterfly' again. But if that was all I could play, I'd feel like Ricky Nelson in Garden Party. With this tour, we're just playing new stuff without asking anyone's permission."

The Wilson sisters have been toiling in their own Heart-shaped shadow for the last few years, mostly coupling old songs with new ones in live and recorded form, as if they were trying to soften the shock of unfamiliarity and entice longtime fans to try something new. Nancy Wilson recently released Live at McCabe's Guitar Shop, two acoustic shows recorded at the famed Los Angeles music store, and has just finished the score for husband Cameron Crowe's upcoming feature. Ann has toured as Heart with Ann Wilson and co-starred for seven months in a musical revue called Teatro ZinZanni in Seattle, where she performed classic jazz tunes.

In 1997, the twosome released the debut album of their most significant side incarnation -- an acoustic quartet with Sue Ennis and Frank Cox called The Lovemongers, whose recordings have brought them back to the snaky folk feel of songs off Dreamboat Annie. Whirlygig followed 1992's The Battle of Evermore EP, whose title track was the Zeppelin cover featured on the soundtrack of Crowe's Singles movie. That cover isn't nearly as attention-getting as another, released just this year, that Ann and Nancy perform with a guest vocalist: the Eurythmics' "Sisters Are Doin' It For Themselves" with Lisa Simpson [voiced by Yeardley Smith] for The Yellow Album, the new compilation of songs and instrumentals from The Simpsons.

Of the new material to be presented on their current national tour, Ann is especially excited about one song: "Nothing But Love," her first collaboration with Burt Bacharach.

"Both of us were really impressed with what he'd been doing with Elvis Costello," Ann says. "So we took him some of my lyrics and said, 'Here.' He liked them, and lifted out the most meaningful ones. I'd say about three-quarters of the original stuff survived the cutting-room floor. And then he began to compose this very sultry music, with interesting jumps in the melodies. He really does compose with women in mind. Of course, male singers like a Sting or an Elvis Costello sound right singing it too."

The current tour as Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart has them playing before crowds of 10,000 in New Jersey and a few hundred in Fort Worth's Caravan of Dreams. Splitting familiar and fresh material "right down the middle," Ann says, the sisters will be sharing bass, electric and acoustic guitar, piano, and flute duties alone on stage, as well as something called "an atomic beat box" -- a hollow wooden box with pickup inside that's cued by the sound man. They kick it to make the sound of a bass drum. All in all, Ann says, she's surprised that she forgot how much intimate venues -- they haven't played this many clubs consecutively since the early '70s, when they traveled all over the Pacific Northwest -- require of a musician.

"I go to bed exhausted every night [on this tour]," Ann says. "But it's great. When you can see the whites of the audience's eyes, you feel like you have to work harder but be more relaxed at the same time." And as for the ultimate goal of playing smaller shows to feature never-before-heard tunes, Ann says, "We're trying to build a bridge to the future with this, saying we're not ready to tour for the next 20 years as a nostalgia act, and then retire to Boot Hill." But what about the name Heart?

"It's not dead," Ann insists. "It's just up on blocks in the back yard."

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