Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Aggressive, Delicate and Enduring

Not much love for the new material, but what does the New York Times know? Red Velvet Car is a vision, we know this. I prefer to ignore the last paragraph of this otherwise glowing review.

There is no shame in the singing of Ann Wilson of Heart. Feet planted squarely, hand on microphone, she anticipates the bigness of notes to come, then still sings them in such an overwhelming fashion that they appear to knock her off her center. Many times at the Hammerstein Ballroom on Tuesday night she took a pause, howled a few lines in a manner that would have impressed even Meat Loaf, then took another pause, needing to refocus.

It happened toward the end of “Alone”, one of Heart’s biggest hits. The arrangement was quieter and more measured than the original, which only spotlighted Ms. Wilson’s histrionics more aggressively: a class in vocal theatrics.

“Alone”, a No. 1 Billboard hit in 1987, has had a potent and varied afterlife. It has undone many an “American Idol” contestant — except for Carrie Underwood, who is indestructible — and it anchored a scene between Matthew Morrison and Kristin Chenoweth during the first season of “Glee.”

“It seems like it’s everywhere,” Ms. Wilson said of the song after she recovered; it was a nod to the stealth influence of Heart — Ms. Wilson and her sister Nancy and, for a time, their big hair, have been the core members — which time has shed of some of its bombastic hard-rock baggage. Its fundamental DNA of soaring melodies and juxtaposition of aggressive and delicate has been visible in all manner of artists in the past decade: Kelly Clarkson, Avril Lavigne, even Sugarland.

During this convincing show, as ever, Heart was unafraid of scale. Arena rock residue was everywhere. There was slick and ostentatious guitar work by Craig Bartock. Nancy Wilson, playing various guitars and a mandolin, jumped around the stage, kicking her feet high. Even the keyboardist, Debbie Shair, had a pair of drums to bang on during the show’s opening sequence.

The group’s 1970s and ’80s hits sounded only slightly worse for wear. Ann was ferocious on “Barracuda” and defiant on a version of “Never” that skewed toward Southern rock. Nancy sang lead on a mystical rendition of “These Dreams”, with Ann joining her at the chorus, but not undercutting her. During the encore they turned Led Zeppelin’s “What Is and What Should Never Be” into a bluesy show tune, replete with jarring, jagged licks by Nancy.

After singing a chaotic “Dog & Butterfly”, from 1978, Ann recalled: “We played it for the guys who were in the band at that point, and they were, ‘Oh, man, chick song!’ ”

Whatever that means.

Heart was never that simple. In a few places here Ann broke out the flute, a reminder of the mild folk undercurrent that always enlivened this band and its surprisingly tender harmonies, though it skipped some softer hits like “All I Wanna Do Is Make Love to You”; this show had no room for sentimentality.

Except in its new material, that is. Later this month Heart will release “Red Velvet Car” (Legacy), its 13th studio album and only its second since 1993. The arrangements are often small, and when slipped in between glorious old numbers during this show they felt listless. Ann’s vocals were still aggressive, and on “Hey You” Nancy briskly strummed an autoharp. But overall, these new songs felt tentative, held back by something Heart was never very good at: modesty.