Ann Wilson (photo: Patric Carver)
Words by SarahJayn Kemp
You can’t really reflect on Ann Wilson’s new solo tour without first reflecting on her journey with Heart. The year 1976 was a watershed year for pop music in that it redefined what pop music was. Just when it looked like pop music was forever on a Fender-fueled rock n’ roll trajectory of hot licks and harder and harder sounds, disco reared its funky head. There was a fractured audience in that record producers could no longer just give the young people what they were looking for because the young people were looking for different things.
Undoubtedly, this was the sonic side effect of the Civil Rights movement blasting through culture. In the 60s, oppressed people demanded to be seen and heard. In the 70s, they were seen and heard . . . and sold. This was true for Heart, a group of army brats and draft dodgers from the Pacific West Coast that were holed up in Canada. Their debut album, Dreamboat Annie, came out that year. The album sold over a million copies, and the label Mushroom Records touted the success of the band in an infamous full-page ad in Rolling Stone Magazine.
Sadly, this ad insinuated a made-up incestuous love affair between the Wilson sisters. Being sexually exploited was not new territory for female entertainers, but the difference this time was that the sisters bit back. “Barracuda” was written in response to their disgust and anger over Mushroom’s publicity stunt, and the band took their success, sound, and strength to another label. Mushroom was left with the unfinished Magazine, and Heart went on to release Little Queen. With hit single “Barracuda”, Little Queen solidified Heart’s position in rock legacy. Dreamboat is a great album and contains one of the best hard pop songs, “Crazy on You” to ever exist, but Little Queen is a seminal work that blends heavy metal, hard rock, and folk in a way that hasn’t quite been duplicated since.
Last Friday at the UC Theatre in Berkeley, Ann Wilson shredded through two sets and an encore that proved she never lost that fervency and fire. Wilson’s soprano voice is as solid and strong as ever. The anti-diva, her vocals don’t have that pretentious, prescribed, this-is-how-you-to-it-right feel of a Mariah Carey or the I’m-too-cool-to-care, it’s-all-about-the-message-man nature of Patti Smith. With most vocalists, you can separate the craft from the art, but the two are impossibly linked for Wilson. Wilson is a voice with soul and a soul with a voice.
If anyone ever found hope of reverse engineering her sound, it may have been found in this performance as night contained mostly cover songs that served as the unpacking of Wilson’s own musical education. Moody, muddled blues tunes Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You,” Aretha Franklin’s “Ain’t No Way,” and Ray Charles’ “Danger Zone” allowed Wilson to show the smoldering vibrato of her voice when showcased in slow, subdued measures. Wilson’s own tune, “Fool No More” contained all the smoky drama of these songs, and the suspenseful, delightful anguish of their tone. Like a burlesque performance for the ears, Wilson teased with flashes of strength, hints at the depth and endurance of her voice before wailing at full charge with her grab-you-by-both-hands voice.
Other covers continued to show Wilson’s range of influences as well as her ability to interject her spirit into any song. Some of her choices seemed particularly fitting for what she referred to as the “strange times” in which we are now living. Though she did not say anything overtly political, her underlying message was clear. As she sang Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth”, pictures of women participating in the Women’s March on Washington flashed on the screen behind her. A smile of connection flashed on her face as the crowd cheered seeing pussy hats on parade light up the screen.
Though even less directly political, her rendition of Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up” seemed aimed at the resistance. It was sweet without being soft. It was revolutionary in its inclusion. Speaking perhaps to the desperation and despair some people are feeling, Wilson did interesting covers of Hendrix’s “Manic Depression,” the Black Crowe’s “She Talks to Angels,” and the Animals’ “We’ve Gotta Get Out of this Place.” Before this performance, these songs would have seemed out of Wilson’s wheelhouse to me. “Manic” relies mostly on swagger rather than strength, and “We’ve Gotta” has such a pleading, sometimes screechy sound. “Angels” is a song I just never cared for because it is soaked in that early-90s, recounting-the-tale-of-the-forsaken pap that I just don’t have a tolerance for. Though they may have seemed like pieces to a different puzzle, Wilson proved they fit nicely when paired with her sound. I don’t know how comfortable I even feel about calling them covers. Not a note was changed, but they didn’t feel like the same songs. They seemed altered somehow beyond the superficial – deep within their DNA. It produced something unique and good and incomparable to the originals. She even made “Angels” palatable, which is no small feat.
Wilson’s true triumph during her cover songs, though, was her impeccable rendition of three songs by The Who. The Who is a band that has been covered many times - badly. Everyone who has ever stumbled into a karaoke bar has seen an imitation Roger Daltry with confused loopy Pete Townsend air guitar windmills murdering “Baba O’ Riley” (and probably referring to it as ‘Teenage Wasteland’). However, even professional singers can find the working-man with golden-pipes trapped in a copper body sound that The Who elusive. Not Wilson. Wilson met Daltry punch-for-punch with vocals that seemed to take over for audience member’s anima and push the very blood in our veins – propelling our life force forward and filling the chambers of our hearts with near-muscle bursting sonic wave.
Wilson’s “The Real Me” was stunning. Containing all the drama and fanfare of the original, Wilson tore through this song as if it was her own. Likewise, “Don’t Get Fooled Again,” a song so synonymous with The Who’s identity that it was chosen as one of the songs performed at their 1990 Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame induction, was carried out by Wilson with all the passion of the original. The real showstopper, though, was “Love, Reign O’er Me.” “Love” is a song that is so powerful that you remember where you were the first time you heard it. Frankly, I admit to a tinge of guilt that I feel being able to just press a button or drop the needle on my record player to call forth this song. It’s so good that it seems like there should be more effort from the listener to earn the experience of hearing it. So, when the first rumblings of this song’s intro rolled out, I thought, “Damn, this Wilson chick is brave.”
In addition to being sonically grand, there’s a lot of pitfalls to covering “Love.” Despite it being one of the best songs ever recorded, this song is inherently pretentious. First off, who uses the term “o’er” when “over” will do just fine? Secondly, the content is brilliantly worrisome. The finale from The Who’s Quadrophenia, “Love” speaks to frustrating anguish of contemplating one’s ascent (or descent, depending on how you look at it) into maturity as if it were a unique experience with which the narrator of the song is wrestling. What makes the song is that we all know, whether we chose the practical or the passionate path, what this moment feels like. Sung incorrectly, “Love” can descend into a murky slump of self-pitying teenage angst.
Thankfully, Wilson did not let this song down. Her strong voice and powerful stage presence tapped into the body of this song – unleashing the feelings from this experience we all hold for a moment on the inside and aren’t quite able to share, this passion from youth that hovers in a moment when we just want life to gobble us up but we’re terrified of being consumed in the process. I think I felt my eyes dilate when Wilson ripped into the first chorus with that blood-curdling, measure-jumping “Luuuuuuuh-uhhhhhhhhh-uhhve!” that kicks the song into gear. She even pounded out some Townsend air-guitar windmills while reeling from the monster she unleashed as her voice hung in the auditorium, ricocheting off the walls and rattling the core of the audience. She can pantomime The Who as far as I’m concerned – she’s earned it. I won’t ever forget where I was when I saw Ann Wilson cover this song.
Of course, there were also Heart Songs. For me, Heart took a turn in the 80s when they became more of a pop band than the wonderfully elusive, genre-dancing creation they originally were. They lost that Heart sound, somehow, and started sounding like everyone else. However, Wilson resurrected some of their work from this more commercialized era and turn it back into what I want to think of when I think of Heart. Her rendition of “What About Love?” left all the wispy, whining desperation that Laura-Ashley wearing teenagers lapped up in the Reagan era behind and replaced it with a stripped-down, bare-bones number that was the sweet song without the schmaltz it was perhaps always meant to be.
From later in their catalog, Wilson pulled out “A Million Miles,” a ho-hum song on their 2012 album, Fanatic. This performance proved that some songs just can’t be captured in a recording. On Fanatic, “Miles” sounds like a sad leftover from the days of gloriously gut-twisting hard rock. It almost plays like a song that would be written for a fictionalized rock band in a movie. However, live it was spectacular. The type of song that gets even the most jaded of the rock audience tapping their toes and moving along with the beat. It was wonderful, but the crown jewel of the Heart songs was Wilson’s epic performance of “Barracuda.” Wilson didn’t hold back in any way, every cell of her person seemed singularly united in producing a sound that would pierce through to the bone with the type of electric fever that only a champion anthem like this can produce. Guitarist Craig Bartock’s driving, galloping guitar bulleted through his song with precision and vitality, but it was once again Wilson’s voice that was the bedrock. The fact that Wilson’s voice can overshadow Bartock’s playing is not a slight to Bartock. He’s masterful. However, Wilson’s vocals were positively astronomical. 2017 marks forty years since “Barracuda” was released, and Wilson reminded everyone why it is still such a relevant piece of work. Critical of the industry in which it exists, “Barracuda” is a powerhouse that transcends emotional backlashes and in one way outlives the subject of its protest. I mean, when’s the last time you ever heard of Mushroom Records?
Sadly, I can’t speak with the same enthusiasm about Wilson’s version of “Crazy on You.” In a way, I am glad she didn’t try to recreate this song exactly as Heart performed it. Nancy Wilson’s intricate intro to this song is so true to her identity as an artist, it wouldn’t have felt right to see someone else standing alongside Ann tease that out on the guitar – even if they could find someone with the chops to capture the other Wilson sister’s style. However, it was disappointing that what was offered up instead was a neutered version of the original. Devoid of the thrilling vocals, this was a strange bluesy rendition that just left me cold. “Crazy” is not a song that can be done badly. You know that karaoke bar I mentioned earlier? Well, ever you walk into one and someone is trying to sing “Crazy” as karaoke? No? Well, that’s because most people have more sense than that, but if you have been unfortunate enough to witness that you’ll know that even a good singer alone can’t carry it. Even though Ann was on stage, it seemed to be missing the spirit of both Wilson sisters. Wilson’s vocals were fine, but it wasn’t the powerful juggernaut that “Crazy” needs to be. If the original had never existed, I’d probably be exalting Wilson for delivering such a sweet song, but “Crazy” is a dragon that can’t be put back in the cave. Frankly, I would have rather a set without “Crazy’ then with this lackluster version.
All in all, though, Wilson proved that she’s still queen of the hard rock vocals and a master at what she does. Wilson’s tour will continue to select locations around the country, and her sister, Nancy, is also expected to announce a solo tour shortly.