Heart’s beat is stronger than ever

By Malcolm X Abram
Beacon Journal pop music writer

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Heart, sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson (Photo by Norman Seeff)

The Seattle-bred band Heart is a classic-rock legend with its music still in regular rotation, pioneer status among women in rock and membership in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

But the band, led by sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson (ages 63 and 59 respectively), isn’t just riding the coattails of a catalog of hits that began with 1970s rock staples such as Barracuda, Magic Man, Crazy On You, Dog & Butterfly and Straight On. Nor is Heart content to rely on slick, chart-topping, 1980s arena power ballads such as These Dreams, What About Love and Alone. But after spending a sizable portion of the 1990s and much of the 2000s with side projects such as the acoustic-driven Lovemongers, Heart has so far kept the 2010s action-packed. The group’s tour will stop Monday at Blossom Music Center.

Following a six-year recording break, the band released Red Velvet Car in 2010, earning its first Billboard Top 10 album in 20 years, along with the DVD Night at Sky Church. Heart hit the road for a yearlong tour of the United States and Canada, and followed that up with a successful co-headlining jaunt with Def Leppard in the summer of 2011.

The band continued its revitalization in 2012 with a box set of hits, live cuts and demos called Strange Euphoria, and the Wilson sisters’ bestselling memoir, Kicking and Dreaming: A Story of Heart, Soul, and Rock and Roll, co-written with Charles R. Cross. The book follows the sisters from their childhood through the 1970s, when they spent considerable energy fending off the advances of famous and infamous suitors, and answering endless stupid questions about their ability to be women who rock; and in the 1980s, when they succumbed to the pressure to be sexy, cleavage-bearing hit makers, which brought them their biggest commercial if not creative success.

“Preparing our book made me realize how many deep challenges we have faced over the years,” Ann Wilson said by email from the tour, where preserving her voice is paramount. “And that, in almost all cases, I would do things no differently.”

Last fall, Heart released its 14th studio album, the rocking Fanatic, which made the Billboard Top 25 and peaked at No. 12 on rock albums chart. Heart wrapped up a superb 2012 by going viral. During the annual televised Kennedy Centers Honors ceremony, the band performed Led Zeppelin’s legendary Stairway to Heaven, complete with strings, a choir and tour mate Jason Bonham on drums. The performance not only drew a standing ovation from the crowd and the band’s surviving members, but has garnered more than 6 million hits on YouTube.

Also in 2012, Heart was chosen for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, an honor that many fans believed should have been bestowed closer to the band’s first year of eligibility back in 2001, but Ann Wilson feels otherwise.

“It was a great honor to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” Wilson said. “I personally felt the timing was perfect. I think our true eligibility had a lot to do with our latter-day albums, Red Velvet Car and Fanatic. Certainly the work of the ’80s had little to do with us as artists. I was greatly thrilled and pleased it happened when it did.”

Wilson, who mentioned the Moody Blues as another band long overdue for induction, is clearly proud of Heart’s recent musical activity. Fanatic, made with co-producer Ben Mink, is a rock record with Ann still in control of her big voice, and her harmonies with Nancy still ring clear. The songs, all co-written by the Wilson sisters, mix tough mid-tempo rock riffage in tunes such as the title track, Mashallah and Dear Old America, with the folk influences that marked their early albums on Walkin’ Good, a duet between Nancy Wilson and Sarah McLachlan.

Rock may not be the dominant force in mainstream pop music that it was back when the Wilson sisters were threatening to go Crazy on You. Other genres including hip-hop, EDM, dance music, indie folk and the increasing hybridization of styles are what’s being hyped and downloaded. Add the fact that seemingly anyone with a decent laptop, a few choice pieces of software and a little bit of talent can quickly become a buzzed-about “artist” before ever playing a show, and the current music landscape may seem a bit scattered for folks who grew up in the major-label era. But Ann said having rock not be at the top of the pop heap could be the best thing for it.

“I believe that rock is at its most vital when it does not rule the mainstream. Rock is at its most vital in rebellion,” she said.

As for the democratization of music brought on in part by the Internet and affordable music-making software, Wilson is a bit less sanguine: “When everyone is an ‘artist’ then no one is a particularly good artist. While the democratization of the process does put a guitar or paintbrush in the hand of every man, it takes the uniqueness out of the form, and nothing is special.”

She continued, “From a music business aspect, the live performance is more important than ever. That is good because not just anyone can succeed in the reality of live art.”

For the “Heartbreaker Tour,” Heart is sharing the reality of its live art with Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience, led by the son of famed Zeppelin drummer John Bonham. Heart has been playing a set of hits including opener Barracuda and Even It Up along with three of the big power ballads and a couple of songs from Fanatic. The encore is a six-song set of Zeppelin tunes with Bonham that includes Stairway to Heaven along with Battle of Evermore, a regular part of the Lovemongers sets.

Malcolm X Abram can be reached at mabram@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3758. Read his blog, Sound Check Online, at www.ohio.com/blogs/sound-check, or follow him on Twitter @malcolmxabram.

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