In the great month of Rocktober, in the dismal year of 2019, the sisters Wilson of Seattle blessed the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul with their presence on the final night of Heart's Love Alive tour.
Joan Jett and the Blackhearts performed a full set before them, and another lady (Lucie Silvas) opened the show, but before getting into any of that, I must digress a bit. The Twin Cities' concert calendar is always full around this time of year, but right now there are way more shows, especially by excellent female musicians, than a fan could possibly catch. (More like Rocktob...her?)
The night before Heart, for example, the young L.A. pop-punk band the Regrettes played a fun, high-energy set to a sold-out all-ages Amsterdam crowd. The merch line stretched out while the bar was wide open. A keener sense of my impending crone-hood was a fair price to pay for the experience, and I left feeling hopeful that the kids might be all right. (Also I learned what a "Hamildrop" is.)
So it was a bit of cultural whiplash to go from being one of the oldest people in a concert audience to one of the youngest. At the Xcel Sunday night the longest lines by far were for the bathroom. There was no shortage of gray hair or vintage Heart T-shirts, and most concertgoers were dressed modestly and practically. Some got into the sartorial spirit, though, with plenty of ladies bringing their leathers out, plus the occasional shiny ensemble, some cat ears, and at least one Joan Jett wig.
This crowd was prompt. Silvas, a U.K. singer-songwriter, played to a nearly full house and mentioned more than once how grateful she was to be there. Her big, soulful voice was arena-worthy, but her pleasant-enough songs, in a sort of less guitar-driven Bonnie Raitt vein, never really popped. Her set closed with a downer piano ballad, quite heartfelt but an odd choice that didn't help the room's energy level.
That changed quickly, though, when the black-clad Blackhearts took the stage. Joan Jett and co. tore right into "Victim of Circumstance" and "Cherry Bomb" with the newly 61-year-old's voice in strong form, any additional raspiness just enhancing her sound. Then Jett paused to address the crowd, introducing the next song, "Light of Day," as one from a movie by the same name that she'd made with Michael J. Fox. (More on that below.)
Anyway, Jett's pace didn't slow after that, and she commanded the stage, stomping around in shiny black platform boots. "Bad Reputation" hit as hard as ever, the Runaways' "You Drive Me Wild" ("the first song I ever wrote," Jett said) got an exuberant outing, and "Fragile" (from 2013's Unvarnished) sounded anything but. The band ripped through "Fake Friends," "Love Is Pain," the Mary Tyler Moore song "Love Is All Around," and "Fresh Start." The crowd helped sing a little on "I Love Rock 'n’ Roll" and more on "Crimson and Clover," then a raucous "I Hate Myself for Loving You" seemed to end the set. But of course a Twin Cities show had to include Jett's cover of the Replacements' "Androgynous" ("written by a local, I believe”), so a bouncier than usual version of that, followed by "Everyday People," made up a brief encore.
With the house lights on, the stage setup for the main event looked like something from an '80s nighttime soap, with flowers placed next to Ann and Nancy's microphones. But when Heart took the stage, the columns became beacons, and the silky backdrop caught the colored stage lights to form intricate patterns. Nancy was blond and resplendent in a brightly colored psychedelic suit and chunky black boots, and Ann, long dark locks topped with a hot pink headband, looked chic yet comfy in a wrap dress and ombre leggings that changed from black to pink to match her slip-on athletic shoes. (The Wilsons are 65 and 69 years old, respectively; Ann seemed to move a little slowly at times but mostly they both looked and sounded spry.)
Perhaps, when one is reviewing a band that's been around for four decades, and one has never seen that band live before, that fact should be disclosed. And so it is done. The closest I'd been was witnessing the (highly recommended) local cover band Heartless. At an Art-A-Whirl gig last spring, they played "Magic Man" second in their set. I wasn't ready; not only is that my favorite Heart song, but the timing seemed, well, premature—that is a climax-ready song if I've ever heard one. But now it's clear they were taking their cues from the real deal. On Sunday (and apparently on every stop this tour), Heart opened with "Rockin Heaven Down" and then went right into "Magic Man," lasers beaming out over the audience. Ann hit all the notes, and they did not skimp on the super-synthy breakdown.
Then Ann addressed the room, sounding a bit giddy, telling us the band is currently a "road-tested unit," asking whether we felt adventurous, and proclaiming, "Everybody's here!" (The show wasn't sold out, but the arena appeared full except for the top tier.) Then she got out her flute and Nancy put on an acoustic guitar for a rendition of "Love Alive," followed by the Yes cover "Your Move." After which things got a little funky, Ann telling us, "When I hear a backbeat like this, I can't sit down. Something starts going crazy, usually my hips." The band launched into "Heard It Through the Grapevine," which swerved smoothly into "Straight On," then back, and back again. Nancy introduced the next song by saying it was a favorite for family singalongs in her youth, then performed a lovely version of Simon and Garfunkel's "The Boxer" that started with her alone and then layered in more guitars, drums, accordion, and Ann's vocals.
Nancy declared it time to move on to the '80s, and after a brief guitar snafu and switch, launched into "These Dreams" as disco-ball light effects filled the stage. Then it was back to the '70s for the quiet "Dog and Butterfly," followed by a brief introduction of the players, none of whom, aside from the Wilsons, are Heart originals. Ann described Nancy as a "goddess of guitar" and Nancy seemed to struggle for words, finally landing on "didactic and jejune" to describe her sister. (Though there were no other signs of discord, the two weren't speaking to each other for several years before reconciling for this tour.)
Next Ann shared a few words about the band's early career struggles and the "sleazeball guys in little satin jackets" they had to deal with, while Nancy got out her flying V for '70s rockers "Little Queen" and "Even It Up." The '80s hit "What About Love" began with a spotlight on Ann, the rest of the stage dark, just swelling strings accompanying her voice until the band again came in and built the song up into something huge. "Crazy on You" ended the main set, Nancy getting some signature leg kicks in, and Ann hitting all the notes but not always holding them quite as long as she used to.
Bubble machines provided a distraction while we waited for the encore. Setlist research had revealed that we'd be treated to one of two Led Zeppelin tunes, and I was hoping for "Battle of Evermore," the Heart contribution to the Singles soundtrack that my Gen X heart is required to love. We got the other one. Yes, "Stairway to Heaven" is a great song, and sure, it's well suited to Heart's sound. But I listened to lots of classic-rock radio in my youth and never need to hear it again. Also? It's long.
Between “Stairway” and all the tour-ending "thank you"s to crew, promoters, etc., the encore dragged a bit. Momentum picked back up with the slowly building "Alone," Heart's best '80s song. Here Ann did sustain all the notes perfectly, the emotion felt high, and the song found its full power. So what was still missing? Yeah, they closed with "Barracuda." Yeah, it rocked. There were hugs and more thanks.
The audience members, who'd made it gamely through a full four-hour show ending at 11 p.m. on a Sunday night (many of them even standing up for most of it), filed out quietly, exhausted but satisfied. Badass women had ruled the stage—pioneers who broke through walls of sexism to be heard, who paved the way for this fall's bumper crop of women-heavy concerts. They earned every ounce of the respect and applause bestowed upon them.
Random notebook dump: Regarding “Light of Day” (and Light of Day): I was an adolescent in 1987, and a Springsteen fan (he wrote the song), but somehow have no memory of this film. Turns out, Jett and Fox star as siblings who play in a rock band called the Barbusters! Gena Rowlands portrays their mom, and Michael McKean is also in it, along with appearances by a young Trent Reznor and the Fabulous Thunderbirds! It was written and directed by Paul Schraeder! It sounds amazing, and I regret that there wasn’t time to watch it before writing this review.
Rockin' Heaven Down
Your Move (Yes cover)
I Heard It Through the Grapevine (Marvin Gaye cover)/ Straight On
The Boxer (Simon & Garfunkel cover)
Dog & Butterfly
Even It Up
What About Love
Crazy on You
Stairway to Heaven (Led Zeppelin cover)