I guess I’m a snob. It’s not easy to admit, since I like to fancy myself a salt of the earth type, but there it is. I’d just assumed that after making two albums for Fat Possum, 2005’s Stairs and Elevators and last year’s amazing All This Time; opening shows for the Drive-By Truckers and Lucinda Williams; and touring clubs relentlessly in the headlining spot, the next logical step for Cincinnati’s Heartless Bastards would be a change of geography.
I’ve never been to Cincinnati. My only experience with Ohio besides the Neil Young song was driving through the opposite end of the state on the I-80. What’s "hi" in the middle and round on both ends? Not Ohio seemed to me it was flat all the way across. And humid. But what do I know? The only time I stopped was to gas up and indulge in an ill-advised all-you-can-eat steak (i.e., sinew and cartilage) special at a Truckstops of America. What I am familiar with is the great rock ‘n’ roll migration tale, featuring groups such as the Dead Boys moving from Cleveland to New York, which probably had more to do with the ready availability of smack than it did with making it. The West Coast version plays itself out as a southerly flight to the home of clapped-out hair bands and cheap tacos: Los Angeles. Even our beloved Melvins, who wended their way down from Aberdeen, Wash., and lodged in San Francisco for a magic period, ended up there, chasing the dragon of rock success.
So it’s ironic that after years of thinking it was lame when bands left the Bay for a chance at the big time I’d ask Erika Wennerstrom the vocalist, guitarist, and principle songwriter for the Heartless Bastards if the trio were thinking of moving away from their place in the heartland. I’ve bought into the stereotype that the edges are where it happens and that the center with the exception of Chi-town is a cultural vacuum.
"No, not really," Wennerstrom says over the phone. "I like Ohio." If I didn’t know where she was from Dayton, originally I’d be baffled by her accent. There’s a lilt, a slight twang, and a flatness to it, all at once high in the middle and round on both ends, a hominess that’s entirely absent in her soulful, from-the-gut singing voice. Isn’t it just like a snobby SF bastard to find it quaint?
"I just think if we tour enough," she continues, "we’re eventually going through enough cities anyway. Plus, sometimes you end up being part of the whole rat race. I hate to use that word," she adds hastily. "There’s lots of big cities I enjoy, but I don’t know if it’s worth having to juggle three jobs."
They may not be juggling, but the HB’s are no strangers to work: drummer Kevin Vaughn works at an incense factory in nearby Oxford, while bassist Mike Lamping works for his family business, Superior Janitor Supply, which receives a shout-out in the "Very Special Thanks" section of the new album. After the last trip around the country in a van, Wennerstrom finally felt that she’d made enough to cut back on bartending and focus on songwriting.
And maybe that’s where my whole "why don’t you move" thing comes from. Listen to Wennerstrom’s dreamy ooh-wooh-hoos over the violin and viola on "I Swallowed a Dragonfly" "in hopes that it would help me fly" and you’ll hear a magic that transcends punching clocks and pulling beers. All This Time is so good, it gives me this "go tell it on the mountain" feeling, which, in turn, leads to a mild bitterness: Why aren’t the Heartless Bastards famous yet? Why are they opening for Lucinda Williams, great as she is, at the Fillmore and not headlining the Fillmore? How can they win Best Rock Group and Best Album of the Year two years in a row at the Cincinnati Entertainment Awards and still be featured in Tom Moon’s "The ‘Overlooked 11’ of 2006" on NPR? Moon has the right idea, and I know I put them on my top 10 list, so who dropped the fucking ball here? And so, somewhat subliminally, my mind starts thinking that maybe it’s Ohio that’s holding them back.
But would they be as good, would the songs sound as sweetly powerful, if there was nothing quotidian to transcend? If they were ensconced in a Hollywood bubble of yes-men attesting to the brilliance of every note? I mean, Jesus, someone in Los Angeles convinced A Simple Plan that they don’t suck. Band members could get lazy if they didn’t have to make an honest living, though I’d have to add that’s what’s so damned appealing about the Heartless Bastards: there’s something honest and unassuming, something unpremeditated about their songs. Despite their name, their music clearly comes from the heart. More precisely, it comes from the hearts of working-class Ohio musicians who haven’t been feted by the same painfully out-of-touch A&R assholes who learned nothing from Nirvana’s momentary pimp-slap of the artistically bankrupt LA record industry: you can’t fabricate honesty.
"I really don’t need a lot," Wennerstrom sings on "Blue Day." "Just trying to hold on to what I got." *
With Beaten Awake and Ride the Blinds
Fri/26, 9 p.m., $10
2565 Mission, SF