Opening the festivities was Miles Nielsen and the Rusted Hearts. I had not heard the band before, but as soon as the vocal harmonies kicked in during show starter "Baby Blue" I knew that this was going to be a set for the record books. These guys can harmonize like the Beatles in their prime, giving me chills on more than one occasion.
Daniel James McMahon has the voice of an angel and his guitar sounds just as heavenly. Andrew Scarpaci made his bass lines seem effortless while Adam Plamann held down the keys and played some of great-sounding clarinet runs. The real star was Micky Rosenquist, one of the most dynamic drummers I've ever seen. He was playing anything and everything with whatever was in hand -- mallets, mallet handles, even bashing the cymbals with his tambourine. His control over the drums was astounding, going from delicate cymbal flicks to wall-shaking thuds and all points in-between.
Miles Nielsen's guitar playing isn't as flamboyant and flashy as his father, Cheap Trick guitar-slinger Rick Nielsen, but it's beautiful in its subtlety. His voice is a warm, rich tenor -- well suited for the music he performs. Whether it's an Americana-soaked ballad or a pop-rocker, the Rusted Hearts have a familiar and comforting tone about their music, not unlike Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers or "Hollywood Town Hall" era Jayhawks.
The highlight of the evening was the last song of their set, "The Best I Can," a tune sung a cappella in four-part harmony. There was silence in the crowd once they started and thunderous applause when they were finished. I'm glad to have caught this set and will be back as often as can when I see them come through town.
As Soul Asylum took the stage, Dave Pirner walked up to his guitar with a smile. Clad in ripped jeans and Chuck Taylors, he looked as if he hadn't aged a day since the peak of "Grave Dancer's Union." Unfortunately, those memories of the early '90s disappeared quickly once the band ripped into "Somebody to Shove."
The sound for Miles Nielsen was about as good as I've heard at the Old Rock House, but something had to have changed between sets. Dave's vocals were nearly inaudible (a problem for the entire set) and Justin Sharbono's guitar sounded great but was way too loud, drowning out Dave's playing as well as bassist Winston Roye and even drummer Michael Bland, who was pounding away at his kit like a man possessed.
This was the first night of their tour, so some issues are to be expected. Aside from the sound issues, my only complaint is that the band sounded stiff and somewhat lackluster while playing the classic songs like "Somebody to Shove," "Black Gold," and "Misery." The only exception to that was when they played "Without a Trace," which was dedicated to former bassist Karl Mueller, who died from throat cancer in 2005.
Despite my overall complaints, the show struck me as a net positive. What I was able to hear of the band's new stuff sounded absolutely fantastic. Soul Asylum was visibly more comfortable and energetic while playing, with smiles being flashed all over the stage. When Dave's voice cut through the mix, he sounded just like he did back in the "Grave Dancer's Union" era.
I was especially glad to see that the band played more new songs than old ones. Soul Asylum is not the same group that recorded those songs, and it's not trying to be. It was clear to me that the musicians enjoy what they're doing; focusing on the past would not have made for a good rock show.