There's nothing quite like seeing a band at the peak of its powers, and that was certainly the case at the Heartless Bastards sold-out show Tuesday night.---
The Texas-based blues-rock crew led by Erika Wennerstrom has evolved dramatically through the years they've been visiting Utah. What started as a sparse three-piece led by an overwhelmingly shy frontwoman when Heartless Bastards opened for Drive-By Truckers at Suede five years ago is now a powerhouse quartet capable of all manner of sonic experimentation, led by a confident singer/songwriter who clearly is having a lot more fun on stage than she did in the past.
It took some time to get here, but Heartless Bastards appear to be realizing the potential a lot of critics and early fans saw when Wennerstrom burst on the scene with 2005's Stairs and Elevators album, a blast of newfangled blues that made it apparent there was a rock-solid new writer on the scene. In the intervening years, Wennerstrom's songwriting has expanded to included touches of pop, country and folk on All This Time (2006) and The Mountain (2009), and her confidence on stage has grown by leaps and bounds.
The band touched on its complete catalog over the course of 18 songs Tuesday at The State Room, starting with Wennerstrom quietly plunking a piano for the intro to "Into the Open" before the band burst into its full, bombastic guitar-heavy glory as she repeated the song's mantra: "Things are coming into focus!"
"Done Got Old" from the band's debut followed, and showcased Wennerstrom's unique howl, a somewhat rougher version of Janis Joplin's blues wail. "Out to Sea" and "Came a Long Way" were both excellent, and "Hold Your Head High" offered more of the humor that fills much of Wennerstrom's lyrics: "I've made a lot of choices. Most have not been wise."
Opener Amy Cook joined the band for a stellar take on the poppy "Be So Happy," followed by the title track of The Mountain, which had some excellent pedal-steel mayhem courtesy of the Bastards' Jesse Ebaugh. Cook returned again for the encore take on "Searching for the Ghost" before the band killed with its last two songs, both from its debut. Gray "was the first song I ever wrote for the band," Wennerstrom said, and they've never played it better in their numerous trips to Salt Lake City. And "Runnin'" was a show-stopper, literally and figuratively.