FOREWORD: I became friendly with Cincy’s Heartless Bastards during an ’05 tour promoting eye-opening entrée, Stairs & Elevators. Lead voice, Erika Wennerstrom, proved to be a genuinely nice person, as were her two male band mates. I remember being upset when drummer Kevin Vaughn told me respectable Cincy brewpub, Barrelhouse, had closed down (happily, it’s now a local microbrewery). I’ve included my ’06 Aquarian interview with Wennerstrom (where she promotes second album, All This Time), as well as an earlier ‘05 Mercury Lounge club date review (with Stairs & Elevators review included). In ’09, the Heartless Bastards returned with The Mountain. Before opening for seasoned high-profile troubadour Lucinda Williams at Radio City Music Hall, upstart Cincinnati trio, the Heartless Bastards, seized the stage two nights hence inside Hoboken’s hallowed backroom landmark, Maxwells.

Taking advantage of transitory headlining status, the powerhouse blues-y triad delivered a well-received hour-and-a-half set filled to the brim with tersely performed tunes from their critically hailed debut, Stairs & Elevators, and its enduring ’06 follow-up, All This Time.

Inspired by Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and a boatload of subordinate Rhythm & Blues sanctities, singer-guitarist Erika Wennerstrom belted out original hard rockers in a convincingly husky contralto. Always verging on the edge of despair, volatile opener, “No Pointing Arrows,” oozed with drone-y sub-Sabbath guitar-bass sludge, reaching an excruciatingly determined zenith as Wennerstrom’s cigarette-coarsened moan crept up from beneath the floorboards to way above the sympathetic crowd. Despite their loudly pungent sound and ruthlessly villainous moniker, these ‘supposed’ Heartless Bastards are actually a shy, friendly cadre, offering very little ‘tween-song chatter and assuming no postures while Wennerstrom laid bear emotional conviction.

“I didn’t really listen to rock until about age sixteen. Nobody I knew really paid attention to it,” Catholic-schooled Dayton native Wennerstrom confessed afterwards. “I’m not into church, but I’m really into (Gospel legend) Mahalia Jackson. I heard of her from a Christmas album that had “Go Tell It On the Mountain.”

By way of Gospel, Wennerstrom felt secure plying her grandiose pipes to hard luck Blues, giving a firm woman’s perspective to the weathered “Feel So Old,” a gloomy minimalist mantra done in a scruffy timbre cognizant of southern R & B practitioner R.L. Burnside – an amazing feat (especially coming from the mouth of a diminutive midwest blonde). Yet she never succumbs to mere abrasive contemptuousness, maintaining sharp-knifed certitude while bleeding sorrow and pain.

“Everybody has their own pain. I think pain is relative,” she claims, deflecting any overbearing heartache endured then transposed through anguished lyrics. “I complain about a million things that happened to me. But I guarantee there are people who’ve suffered worse.”

Perchance, one of those sufferers was influential wheelchair-bound slide guitarist, Cedell Davis, a fellow Fat Possum Records artist whose latent career found a ripened ‘90s audience after years of neglect. Nonetheless, Wennerstrom also admits to having a hankering for fellow underground Ohio rockers Guided By Voices and Braniac – two prematurely defunct outfits that toured ceaselessly not unlike these busy Bastards.

Perhaps mostly reminiscent of tragic cosmic blues figure Janis Joplin, Wennerstrom sings with the same raggedy heart-on-the-sleeve fervor and converses in a similarly elucidated fragile twanged drawl. An unadulterated urgency constantly enriches her vitally projected haunted pining. Stormy polar discontent (“so cold in the winter”) and dusky escapism curdle bewitching numbers such as “Into The Open,” where she intermittently turns to piano for somber retreat. Quite possibly, her band may have sold millions had they existed right after Joplin’s exquisite Pearl dropped in ‘70.

Thankfully, the efficient rhythm section of bassist Mike Lamping and drummer Kevin Vaughn provide plentiful gusto, safeguarding their distressfully self-effacing primary damsel to the hilt. Together a mere four years, the Heartless Bastards have already accomplished plenty. Hanging around veteran performers such as Lucinda Williams and James Mc Murtry could only help seal their fate as semi-famous subterranean homesick blues-rockers.


One cold March night at cozy New York club, Mercury Lounge, blues-y Cincinnati trio the Heartless Bastards warm up a thicket of curious patrons with a durable set of supple tunes from their excellent debut, Stairs And Elevators (Fat Possum). Led by Fender guitarist Erika Wennerstrom’s huskily whined contralto, the amiable combo flawlessly ran through a flurry of resolute bittersweet lamentations ripe for the picking.

Plying her skillful fretting to sparingly swelling arrangements, the bantam blonde-headed filly belted out aching emotion-drenched lyrics that captured all the heartache and pain a dreary existence as a Dayton teen could bring forth. Meanwhile, stoic bassist Mike Lamping stood hunched over, eyes almost closed, plucking dense chords. And hefty bald drummer Kevin Vaughn, buried behind his kit, splattered blunt beats and cymbal tings, filling any empty spots necessary to complement Wennerstrom’s sepulchral tear-stained squawks.

On Stairs And Elevators, inviting opener “Gray” finds Wennerstrom spewing anguish, leaning on the distortion pedal for emphasis. She drags out vowels like vamping punk dowager Patti Smith for the tart “Onions,” seeks clear-eyed “Autonomy” overcoming ominous obstacles and childhood tribulations, and remains hopeful atop the rippling percussive patter encircling doggedly empowered “New Resolution,” all the time steadfastly spouting cautious optimism. “Swamp Song” indirectly salutes Oxford, Mississippi’s rudimentary Country blues men, such as fellow label mates R.L. Burnside and T Model Ford, with blustery axe wielding tumult and adroit rhythmic execution. Similarly, lowdown hoedown “Done Got Old” leans closer to nearby Appalachian mountain folk tradition. Fans of the Heartless Bastards previous tour buddies, the Black Keys and Drive-By Truckers, will not be disappointed.

-John Fortunato