Heartless Bastards rocked hard, late and long Thursday night at Upstate Concert Hall, leaving no musical stone unturned.
From punk-y country, to epic-length jams, to sultry acoustic folk, leader Erika Wennerstrom and her ferocious group — bassist Jesse Ebaugh, drummer Dave Colvin and lead guitarist Mark Nathan — played with passion and energy to spare for more than an hour. The crowd may have been small, probably not numbering above 40, but they were appreciative and rowdy, helping to create an intimate mood while not diminishing the rock ’n’ roll intensity of the performance.
With three openers, the night was jam-packed, and the Cincinnati, Ohio-formed, Austin, Texas-based band didn’t hit the stage until just before 11. Set opener “The Mountain,” featured Nathan on pedal steel for the only time this evening, giving the otherwise hard rocker a welcome twang.
The band kept things rocking (and loud) for most of the first half, charging through “Out at Sea,” “Blue Day” and “Simple Feeling” at breakneck speed. “Gotta Have Rock ’n’ Roll,” with its snarling groove and Wennertrom and Nathan’s twin guitar assault, could have been the evening’s theme song.
Things calmed down slightly on “Only for You” and nearly hit whisper-levels on “The Arrow Killed the Beast,” from the band’s latest album, this year’s “Arrow” — although the dirgey tune picked up for the finale. The epic-length “Down in the Canyon” obliterated that vibe with dirty blues riffs and Wennerstrom’s powerhouse snarling, spiraling out into psychedelic territories while Colvin and Ebaugh anchored everything in place.
While Nathan had shown his worth as a lead guitarist already, he was only just getting started. His solos on “Late in the Night” were relentless, and his playing with Wennerstrom (who did a fair amount of lead playing herself) on “Parted Ways” was subdued yet perfect, nailing a midsong key change (modern songwriters don’t do midsong key changes enough — it’s a great device, and worked wonderfully here).
After a roaring climax, the band came back soft for the encore, the somewhat turgid “Be So Happy,” but then kicked the rock back on for “Gray” — perhaps the hardest song they performed all night. It was a fitting end, not to mention a good wake-up call after a long night.
Each of the evening’s openers brought a different musical approach to the party.
The Futurebirds, from Athens, Ga. (and incorrectly spelled as Future Brides on Upstate Concert Hall’s website and flyers) sounded something like a car crash involving Neil Young and Sonic Youth. Rough-hewn, three-part harmonies and twangy pedal steel gave way to furious noise jams throughout the band’s set, as the sextet built each song to a fiery climax.
Austin’s Dana Falconberry and her six-piece band (this is a huge tour the Heartless Bastards have set up) took a different tack from the other bands on the bill. With mostly acoustic instruments, including banjo, cello and classical guitar, Falconberry and company wove complex three-part harmonies into a tapestry of folk, country and indie pop.
Local band Northern Faces (formerly Around the World and Back) kicked things off right at 8 with a six-song set of thundering indie punk. Their best was “Side of the Road,” where the group’s heavy riffage and auxiliary percussion came together in a dynamic jam that got the still-growing crowd moving.