Saturday night. Los Angeles. What to do?
Luckily this was one weekend evening I had mapped out already, as I had made plans to see Heart at the Gibson Amphitheatre in Universal City, Calif., months in advance.
Heart hit the stage just past 9:30 p.m., entering to the tribal beats of "Cook With Fire," the lead track to 1978's classic Dog & Butterfly that cautions men not to dance too close to a deceptive female's flame. "She's going to burn ya/She's gonna make you a fool/But it'll learn ya/Way, way better than school," sang Ann Wilson. (In a rare moment of concert clarity, I thought, "Too bad they didn't teach that in school.")
The '80s made a grand entrance in the presence of "What About Love?" — the lead single from Heart's 1985 quintuple-platinum, self-titled album. Added back to their set this year, the song still resonates as it did a quarter century ago.
Sister Nancy Wilson made her first splash of the evening in laying down some funky riffing on her aqua-blue-swirled Fender Telecaster. Guitarist Craig Bartok joined the fun and off the band catapulted into the pointed "Straight On." The Wilsons' patented crystal-clear harmonies shone through on this hit, also from Dog & Butterfly.
Nancy, an overlooked lead singer in her own right (par for the course when your sister is Ann Wilson), took the mic for two songs. First up was Heart's first-ever No. 1 single, "These Dreams." Saddled with her trusty mandolin, Nancy introduced the song as the "spare a little candle version" in describing the intimacy of the rendition to come. Indeed, the song features a more stripped-down, mature treatment nowadays, while still maintaining a meditative quality.
Segueing into the brand-new "Hey You" — a romantic poem set to song perfect for any longstanding couple weathering the proverbial storm of love — Nancy displayed her musicality in playing autoharp.
The evening's sonic experiment came via a garage band-worthy mash-up of the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" with "Even It Up" from 1980's Bebe Le Strange album. I like to think Mick and Keith would have approved.
The understated title track for Heart's new album, Red Velvet Car, followed. Ann described the song as "a soul rescue vehicle. It's about that friend you call in the middle of the night when you're stuck." An anthem of friendship and loyalty, the performance was hypnotic, and augmented by red lighting.
The monumental ballad "Alone" played out like a solemn prayer. Ann's vocals were complemented sparingly by Nancy on acoustic guitar and the pig-tailed Debbie Shair playing a harpsichord-type keyboard patch. Usually a high point at any Heart concert, tonight's rendition was particularly mesmerizing as Ann evoked the character of the song's protagonist like an Oscar-winning actress.
Picking the pace back up, the band ripped into "WTF," another new song from Red Velvet Car. With a driving groove — convincingly led by drummer Ben Smith and bassist Kristian Attard — and a sea of acoustic guitar strumming by Nancy, lyrically the song centers around a theme of self-examination with Ann warning: "The hardest thing you'll ever learn is what bridge to cross and what bridge to burn."
With her cascading strawberry-blonde hair, the timelessly beautiful Nancy Wilson moved across the stage with a combination of agility, grace and fervor for the entire evening. Her tour de force was her acoustic guitar solo preceding "Crazy On You," which featured an extended treatment with an excerpt of the main riff of "Hijinx" (a Heart diehard-only catch), a little bit of blues and a few bars of Led Zeppelin's "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You."
"Crazy On You," along with "Magic Man" before and "Barracuda" following, received arguably the best reactions from the L.A. crowd. A well-placed trio of veritable rock classics.
What does a band like Heart do for an encore? They read a few pages from the classic rock songbook. On "What Is And Never Should Be" from Led Zeppelin II, Ann matched Robert Plant's every nuance while Bartok played the song's memorable slide guitar solo, doing his best to evoke Jimmy Page.
The evening came to an end via the Who's dense "Love Reign O'er Me," an uplifting finale. As the last echoes reverberated, the band exited the stage to thundering applause.
With a band such as Heart having a vast catalog of music, there are always going to be songs you wish were played. (As a matter of fact, no songs were played from my favorite Heart album, 1990's Brigade.) But I found the 90-minute set well balanced and paced perfectly. As for the songs from Red Velvet Car, they fit together comfortably amid the band's classics.
True to the band's duality, the concert was ripe with dynamics. It was hot and cold; aggressive yet subtle; loud and quiet; powerful and delicate; and introspective yet communal. But most of all, it was full of heart.
"Cook With Fire"
"What About Love"
"Dog & Butterfly"
"Gimme Shelter"/"Even It Up"
"Red Velvet Car"
"In the Cool"
"Crazy On You"
"What Is and What Should Never Be"
"Love Reign O'er Me"