Concert review and set list: Heartless Bastards (with Tenement Ruth and Frank Smith) captivate the Firebird, Tuesday, September 11

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The Firebird was barely a quarter-full when St. Louis’ Tenement Ruth took the stage at 8:30 p.m. A couple dozen people, mostly older males, were scattered along the back wall near the arcade machines and sound board.

A group of Bananagram-playing youths established themselves in a booth and busied themselves with Scrabble’s kissing cousin. “So super excited to be here,” Tenement Ruth singer/guitarist Melissa Anderson purred in a conspicuously dreamy voice. “I have some cookies over there I baked…please have some.” Four songs into their five song slot, patrons came filing in, shrinking the void between the stage and the audience. Tenement Ruth’s sleepy set was punctuated by life-giving riffs courtesy of Dave Anderson and a cover of the Crystals’ “And Then He Kissed Me” with bassist Jake Deleonardis’ monotonous rumble giving the sugar-sweet jam a tart flavor.

Frank Smith‘s Aaron Sinclair checked his mic prior to a 10-song set with a non-descript aboriginal chant — “AY-YAI-YAI-YAI-YYYAAAIII!” — and introduced the band three times. “Thanks guys. We’re Frank Smith. We’re from Austin, Texas. I’m sorry to keep doing that. My Dad told me I should do that shit.” Prior to that, on their third song, the entire band began cackling after Sinclair sang, “You look pretty ugly,” a line, judging by the band’s reaction, he may or may not have made up. Silly antics aside, Frank Smith’s set flowed between darkroom rock and aggressive pop. It was uneven, but interesting — an indie rock base plus solvent ideas from country and piano rock. The result is an unpredictable element that puzzles and intrigues the listener.

The oblivious crowd allowed Heartless Bastards to walk onto the stage unnoticed. After a brief sound check, more of a tweak than an outright realignment, the crowd applauded in polite acknowledgment. Heartless Bastards would play an hour and a half set. After a bombastic weekend that included the spectacular sixth-annual An Under Cover Weekend, the audience seemed worn. Given that the Heartless Bastard’s material translates laid-back in person, Erika Wennerstrom’s warm rasp offered a creature comfort.

In the band’s tightness, not a note was missed, nor a riff flubbed; from song to song, Wennerstrom’s voice evoked sentimental images of a favorite book — one that is read for enjoyment, not intellectual stimulation. Like Marguerite Henry books of yore, Wennerstrom’s voice creates captivating images. “Spent my time here as a child/and now I’m passing through here and it’s all coming back again/Dilapidated building on Main/This small town is down/and it’s hard for me to stay,” she sings on “Skin and Bone.” Visions of a ghost town float upwards from the unconscious.


Heidi Johnson — a girl who looked exactly like Mary Elizabeth-Winstead and who had been lackadaisically watching the set from the band’s merch table– joined Heartless Bastards on harmony for “Skin and Bone,” “Arrow Killed the Beast” and the set’s sole encore, “Be So Happy” off 2009′s “Mountain.” As Johnson appeared on stage, Jesse Ebaugh left his mini keyboard and took up his bass. The band locked into its groove, a trench filled with guitarist Mark Nathan’s consistently impressive guitar solos, and drummer Dave Colvin’s supportive percussion. It felt seasoned. The musicians appeared comfortable in their ability to run a show. “Down in the Canyon” featured a bass solo from Ebaugh – a rare kind of solo, a reminder of the multi-dimensional nature of the instrument and the possibilities inherent in senior musicianship. Things really do get better with time.

Heartless Bastards set list:

Mountain
Out at Sea
Witchy Poo
Blue Day
Skin and Bone
Arrow Killed the Beast
Down in the Canyon
Late in the Night
Gray
Hold Your Head High
Parted Ways
Gotta Have Rock ‘n’ Roll
Simple Feeling
Nothing Feels the Same

Encore:
Be So Happy

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