Review: Old 97’s, Heartless Bastards A Match Made In Heaven

There’s nothing too out of the ordinary about seeing Heartless Bastards or Old 97’s. Neither band is a stranger to Cincinnati, what with Heartless Bastards forming here 13 years ago and the 97’s making perennial stops at Southgate House and now its Revival. But they’re also two of the best sure-things in music: professional, road-hardened live acts who visibly love what do and leave it all on the stage every night. Needless to say, having them on the same bill at a packed Woodward Theater on Thursday night made for a pretty special evening. 

Old 97’s went straight to work with “Timebomb,” perhaps their best-known song, and they didn’t let up for an hour. For most of the tour they’ve been closing the show, but they deferred to the hometown Bastards and blitzed through a satisfying career-spanning set of greatest hits. They touched on 2014’s delightful Most Messed Up with “Let’s Get Drunk and Get It On,” every bit as funny as the title implies, and the autobiographical “Longer than You’ve Been Alive,” which built to a swelling climax only hinted at on record. Even as he pushes into his late forties, lead singer Rhett Miller is seemingly ageless, shaking his hips and going airborne for scissorkicks as Ken Bethea ripped his blistering solos. It’s easy to keep your eyes on the charismatic Miller or on genial bassist Murry Hammond, but watching Bethea is like seeing the blueprints of the songs unfold. Cool as a cucumber, he executes economical, biting riffs, barely breaking a sweat. The quartet blasted through classics like “Won’t Be Home” and “Rollerskate Skinny” before closing the set with a menacing ride through the self-loathing anthem “Four Leaf Clover.” The crowd wholeheartedly tried to pull them back for an encore, but the amps were already off and the house lights were up.

Old 97s
Photo courtesy of Jensen Faye

But the consolation was an always-welcome homecoming by Heartless Bastards, and they treated us to an extended headlining set.  “It’s nice to see some familiar faces,” grinned lead singer Erika Wennerstrom after opening with “The Mountain” and Restless Ones standout “Gates of Dawn.” It’s always jarring when you first hear Wennerstrom’s force-of-nature alto emerging from the speakers, too strong and multifaceted to possibly be real. The rest of the Bastards’ sound is enormous, too, rounded out by bassist Jesse Ebaugh and the furious drumming of Dave Colvin. Guitarist Mark Nathan ties everything together, slick but never showy. Joined by a touring multiinstrumentalist, they plowed through healthy doses of Restless Ones and Arrow, and revived All This Time’s “Blue Day,” absent from setlists the last few years. They veered tantalizingly close to stoner metal on the dense, extended centerpiece “Down in the Canyon,” highlighted by Colvin’s muscular drums. Four guitars graced the stage for “Low Low Low,” and they finished the night with the bluesy mid-tempo stomp of “Sway.” If anything, this is a band that continues to improve onstage.

Heartless Bastards
Photo courtesy of Jensen Faye

American Aquarium’s BJ Barham played an opening set which started (and ended) before the advertised show time, so most of the audience missed him entirely (yours truly included). But by midway through the Old 97’s’ set, The Woodward was nearly at capacity, and the Friday show was a sellout, meaning the Heartless Bastards have now filled the venue four times in eleven months. Wennerstrom and company may be nearly a decade removed from their departure, but the mutual admiration between the band and the city continues to lead to some of the most electrifying nights on Cincinnati stages. Even by their standards (and those of the 97’s), Thursday night was a classic.

Check out photo albums of the show HERE and HERE.

Heartless Bastards setlist:
The Mountain
Gates of Dawn
Got to Have Rock and Roll
Black Cloud
Into The Light
Skin & Bone
Blue Day
Hold Your Head High
Down in the Canyon
Out at Sea
Only for You
Parted Ways
Nothing Seems the Same 


Low Low Low

Old 97’s setlist:
Murder (Or a Heart Attack)
Let’s Get Drunk and Get It On
Big Brown Eyes
Won’t Be Home
Longer Than You’ve Been Alive
Wish the Worst
Barrier Reef
Can’t Get a Line
Give It Time
Rollerskate Skinny
Four Leaf Clover