It’s pretty tough to put together a good coheadlining tour. The two acts have to be of similar stature in the music world, a difficult balance to strike, and complement each other well enough share a stage (and have their fanbases coexist). But when a promoter nails it, it’s a rare gift, and can lead to magic nights greater than the sum of its parts. It is also rare for a Midwestern market to get a major tour in for a two-night stand. So when Old 97’s and Heartless Bastards roll into town for two shows at The Woodward Theater this weekend, it goes without saying we’re in for a special treat.
Twenty-two years removed from their debut Hitchhike to Rhome, Dallas-based Old 97’s are alt-country elder statesmen. Since then, they’ve released nine more albums equally informed by Johnny Cash and The Clash, most recently 2014’s Most Messed Up. Rhett Miller is a tireless frontman, executing windmill guitar solos and punk scissorkicks with precision. His songwriting exhibits a wry, biting sense of humor and a literary flair for narrative. Most Messed Up is, in part, a document of a long career on the road, and it kicks off with the tongue-in-cheek “Longer Than You’ve Been Alive”: “Rock and roll's been very, very good to me/The open road's the only place I wanna be.” Over the album’s remaining 35 minutes, the quartet rollicks through songs of blackout nights, small town losers, and drunken lovers, continuing their unbroken streak of charming and heartfelt gems.
These days, Heartless Bastards may call Austin home, but they are a Cincinnati band through and through. They made their live debut at The Comet in Northside in 2003, and haven’t looked back. A tip from Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney led to their record deal with Fat Possum Records, who released their first three albums, including 2009’s timeless The Mountain. Lead singer Erika Wennerstrom has a seemingly limitless alto, rich and full. She relocated the band to Austin in 2007 with a new lineup, but the Queen City has never been far from her heart. The band regularly swings through for club dates (including two nights of their own at with Craig Finn at The Woodward last summer) and festival sets (such as the packed-to-the-gills headlining set at Moerlein during Midpoint 2015). Their newest record, last year’s Restless Ones, stands as tall as anything in their discography. “Gates of Dawn,” a staple on WNKU for most of the last year, is particularly a marvel, propelled by Wennerstrom’s dynamic voice and the roaring guitar work of Mark Nathan.
Rounding out the night is opener BJ Barham, lead singer and songwriter for North Carolina band American Aquarium. They’ve quietly built a sizable following over the last decade, and they count the likes of Jason Isbell among their admirers. Triple bills like this one don’t roll around every day, but you’re in luck--this one settled on a bit of a layover.