Just thunderous. Rolling, driving, relentless like a storm across the prairie, Heartless Bastards blew in to First Avenue on Monday night and shook the stage for almost a solid two hours. Touring in support of their latest effort, Restless Ones, frontwoman Erika Wennerstrom announced from stage, “We’re really excited about our new record, it came out what, two weeks ago? Tour ends up blurring it all together.”
Their set showed no such confusion though, kicking off with fan favorite “Simple Feeling” and then tearing into the new single “Gates of Dawn” for a set that was focused and rarely let up. They alternated throughout the night between established songs, leaning heavily on 2012’s Arrow and new tunes, each one standing up to the next. With Jesse Ebaugh on bass and pedal steel, and Dave Colvin on drums providing a constancy and thrill on songs like “Gotta Have Rock and Roll” and the new “Hi-Line,” the country-inflected rock filed the whole room. For the slower touch of the new “Pocket Full of Thirst,” Mark Nathan’s longing guitar held the crowd in thrall.
Wennerstrom’s evolution throughout the band’s career has given her an enviable and mesmerizing range, from a plain-spoken country warble to raspy rock n’ roll bellow to an almost ethereal incantation. For the last third for the set, surrounded by what may be pound-for-pound the best bar bands you’ll hear outside of a honky-tonk, Wennerstrom Held the center as her bandmates popped up to deliver cheer-inducing flourishes of talent as they moved through roaring tunes like “Low Low Low” and the set closer “Parted Ways.”
Heartless Bastards weren’t quite ready to let it go, though, as they had to make up for not having been through Minneapolis in three years – “Too long!” in Wennerstrom and the crowd’s estimation. For the encore, they wrapped it up with the haunting, pulsing “Tristessa” from Restless Ones, Wennerstrom solo on stage as the reverb washed around her, a powerful benediction from a singular voice.
Another singular voice was on the bill on Monday, although probably more acclaimed for his lyrical intelligence than his musical range. Still, Craig Finn, usually of the Hold Steady, formerly of Lifter Puller, did pull out some new sounds while showcasing his trademark narrative wit while performing in advance of his second solo full-length, Faith in the Future, out this September.
Finn performed all of his songs with an acoustic guitar, joined onstage by Arun Bali on electric guitar providing “atmospherics,” as he called them in a listening party with 89.3 The Current on Sunday night. Finn kicked it off with the new song “Maggie I’ve Been Searching For Our Son,” a heavy recounting of a father seeking some closure at the end of an eventful life, including the portentous line, “There a darkness in my body / and I think I may be ready.”
There were a couple nods to his previous bands, with two tunes from The Hold Steady’s 2004 Almost Killed Me making an appearance in the set, “Modesto is Not That Sweet” and “Certain Songs.” He also brought up Lifter Puller’s Steve Barone for a rendition of “Mission Viejo” and intimating that the upcoming D’4th of July at the Triple Rock Social Club would be a good place to be if you liked that band.
From songs about studio life inspired by his experiences with 9/11 (“Newmeyer’s Roof”) to the lucid dreaming of being on tour (“Extras”) Finn’s incisive, poetic slices of life were wrapped in more gauzy sonic touches than the more straightforward bar-rock of the Hold Steady, but it was in the lyrics that he still had the sharpest hooks. Closing out the night with “Dennis & Billy,” a solo tune about two friends growing apart through addiction, Finn delivered one of his most poignant lyrics about life – “He went for the handle / Got bit by the blade” – in a voice that has seen a lot. But as Finn put it, the new record is about “finding light after darkness,” and the power of music to help that along.