Hacienda is comprised of brothers Abraham (piano), Rene (bass) and Jaime Villanueva (drums), with cousin Dante Schwebel (guitar). Officially, all members contribute to vocals, although Rene Villanueva and Schwebel shared much of the spotlight last night. Rene mentioned that the current tour was the second time the band had accompanied Heartless Bastards on the road.
Most of Hacienda's set featured tracks from their new album, an as-yet-untitled project recorded in Nashville (a single from the album, "Savage" is already on iTunes). The newer songs sounded polished and produced with a pop sensibility, but a few standouts like "Natural Life" and the "Honaloochie Boogie"-like "Let Me Go" retained the grittier, funkier feel of Hacienda's previous albums, 2010's "Big Red & Barbacoa" and 2008's "Loud Is the Night." I preferred these selections, the thrown-together feel of the compositions enhanced by dirty keyboards and echoey vocals. It's a throwback sound popularized by the Black Keys, a band for whom Hacienda opened after Dan Auerbach heard their demos. According to Hacienda's MySpace page, Auerbach also recorded them at his home studio in Ohio.
Veteran pros from Austin, Heartless Bastards opened their headlining set with "Marathon," a subdued track from their upcoming album "Arrow," to be released February 14. It's a hushed sort of strummer pulled from folkishness by ethereal cymbals and Erika Wennerstrom's gorgeously raw voice. I hereby nominate "Marathon" to be the next Best Road Ballad, as it far surpasses "Home Sweet Home" in both creativity and not-having-anything-to-do-with-Vince Neil.
Wennerstrom is a soul singer with the veneer of Grace Slick, a tiny powerhouse who can take an audience down a rabbit hole of bluesy psych pop. Wennerstrom looks like Kim Gordon but that's where the similarity ends; like peers the Duke Spirit and the Black Angels, the Heartless Bastards' style is rooted in the bedrock of '70s-era rock 'n' roll made surreal by dizzying instrumentals and, last night at the Firebird, a Chinese language-subtitled Bluray disc of "Roadhouse" playing behind the bar.
While Wennerstrom is the band's founder, songwriter, vocalist and guitarist and therefore commands most of the attention, she never steals focus from her bandmates. Heartless Bastards is a tightly knit group of performers whose skill at playing together is glossed by a sense of comfort and familiarity. And they stick to playing together. There was some subdued stage banter, but chatting wasn't the point.
The point was Dave Colvin's marching band drums of "Witchy Poo," Mark Nathan's high lonesome guitar on the American gothic ballad "The Arrow and the Beast" and a subtle heartbeat rhythm from bassist Jesse Ebaugh, who was recently tapped to play on Craig Finn's solo album, "Clear Eyes Full Heart." And, yes, the tender, smoky, from-the-belt vocals of Wennerstrom on nearly every song, even "Blue Day," which was drenched in Zeppelin-like feedback without overwhelming the crowd or any individual musician.
The promotion of "Arrow" was the order of the evening, with many of the new tracks enthusiastically cheered by the audience although many of them haven't been released yet. Seldom is a new album performed with such confidence, but with Wennerstrom in the lead -- can you tell I'm a little bit in love with her? -- even the more experimental songs featuring maracas, trilling tambourine and one fuzzy tune described as "doom metal" came out straight and true. I sincerely hope the Heartless Bastards' knack for direction leads them back to St. Louis soon.