Growing up in the late '70s and early '80s, bands like Heart were the bane of my existence. As a teenager, I cringed when hits like "Magic Man" or "Barracuda" were constantly coming from the radio in my dad's car. Sure, both Ann and Nancy Wilson were easy on the eyes, but this stuff was Led Zeppelin light. I was listening to the Sex Pistols and the Clash. Who had time for Heart?
And then the band seemed to fade from view. After 1980's Bebe le Strange, the hits dried up, at least for a while. Then mid decade, the Wilson sisters decided to abandon rock and tackle power ballads head on. It was a fortuitous (albeit musically horrendous) choice. The hits like "What About Love" and "These Dreams" became even bigger than anything previous. Even as Ann Wilson battled weight issues (see videos from that time when they only filmed her head), the band reached an entire new audience, a seemingly endless contingent of soccer moms and stay at home dads, folks who liked music easily digested and consumed
Well, last night at Gexa Energy Pavilion, Heart gave the enthusiastic audience the best and the worst of it. Starting with the late '70s bone-crunching riffs and absurdly medieval lyrics and proceeding to the syrupy, vacuous late 80's material, Heart acted as each style could coexist with the other. And judging by the reception of the crowd, they could.
Opening with "Barracuda," Heart sounded vibrant and compelling. Sure, the song is basically a Zeppelin rip off, but Nancy Wilson was in good guitar form and Ann was hitting the high notes better than any other 63-year-old front person I know. Then came "Heartless," a decent rock song with a good hook. But once "What About Love" began, I just had to shake my head and wonder why this connected with anyone at any level. It's a simple song, a mundane cliché with a huge, sing-a-long chorus that forces folks to fling their arms in the air and sway like programmed automatons. This was miles away from Led Zeppelin, miles away from anything resembling rock and roll.
Luckily, Heart rebounded with "Magic Man" and "Kick it Out," songs from long ago and far way, songs with a soul. Even the new wavy "Even it Up" had bite, although Ann's proclamation that the song was some kind of feminist call to arms rang hallow.
The concert's low point may have well been "Dog and Butterfly," a decent acoustic ditty back in the day. But now, Heart has turned the song into another sickly sweet, over-amped, heavy-handed power ballad. I kept envisioning some bad Pixar movie about this runaway dog and his butterfly friend somehow finding their way back home while the soundtrack pounded my brain into submission with trite lyrics and bombastic overproduction.
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After an OK take on Elton John's "I Need You to Turn To," Heart pummeled the crowd with "These Dreams," a truly horrible excuse for a song. Of course, the masses ate it up, recalling all those 80's memories like they had happened yesterday. Exceedingly well played, the song echoed out into the night like a bad rerun of a forgotten 80's sitcom.
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Thankfully, Heart ended with "Crazy on You," a killer song with an undeniably killer riff. And then it was encore time when (opening act) Jason Bonham and his Led Zeppelin Experience backed Ann and Nancy through the expected Zeppelin chestnuts.
"Immigrant Song," "Kashmir," and of course, "Stairway to Heaven" sounded alright. Early on, Heart was probably a decent Zeppelin cover band and tonight they proved they still could hold their own.
Exiting the venue, I felt better about the 80 degree temperature than I did about the music. I didn't hate it, but I didn't love it either. It was like eating a Twinkie and downing it with a big glass of Coke. I felt bloated with sugar and in serious need of some punk rock roughage.