One of my goals when I moved to Austin was to attend an Austin City Limits taping. I didn't care who was playing I just wanted to experience it once. I soon learned that everyone wants to attend these shows. Therefore, tickets hard to come by but last week I got my chance.
This wasn't my first time in the famous ACL studio. I was there a few weeks ago for a ACL Stage Left performance featuring Brazos. The main difference was the crowd size and the staging. If you've seen the show you know its trademark is the Austin skyline right behind the stage.
Once inside, I grabbed a beer, snagged a seat (standing is for suckers), and the Heartless Bastards took to the stage. The band is known for its bluesy version of garage rock but on its latest album, The Mountain, they changed things up a bit. Prior to recording, Erika Wennerstrom moved from Ohio to Austin and replaced the entire rhythm section. The result was less of that lo-fi sound that is synonymous with the Ohio music scene and more of what I'd call country-grunge. The music is still a little dirty but it has plenty of muscle to match Erica's soulful and distinctive vocals.
At first Erika seemed a little nervous but then I suspected she was a little tipsy. It could've been nerves but I'm betting otherwise. Not that it mattered. When she was singing and playing guitar she was spot on. You only noticed when she spoke with the crowd or had to restart a song - which she did more than a few times. That was the one thing that distinguished this from a regular concert. They knew they were on tape and everything would be edited later. If a song wasn't going right Erika would call it off and start over. This happened three times when Erika and Alex Maas, lead singer of The Black Angels, sang Johnny Cash's "If I Were A Carpenter" (they have a side project called Sweet Tea). It took a while but once they got through the first verse everything sounded great. The Man in Black would've been proud.
Erika, who bares a striking resemblance to former Saturday Night Live player Cheri Oteri, and the band gained confidence and momentum as the set progressed. The low point was the Cash cover restarts but things turned for the better when they played "Into The Open" off All This Time. With each song the rhythm section proved fierce but well honed. The group cranked out a rousing racket but also showed range with tunes featuring acoustic guitar, banjo, and violin.
This is the third time I've seen these Bastards in concert. The first time I only knew one or two songs. Sacklunch, probably their biggest fan in Rock Club, was a little disappointed in the show but I liked it enough to listen to more of their stuff. By the time I saw them again at last year at the Austin City Limits Festival I considered myself a legit fan. This performance did nothing to change that. In fact, quite the opposite.