While Robert Plant is off singing Americana folk with Alison Krauss or clashing with reporters who call out questions for a Led Zeppelin reunion at press conferences, Heart’s Ann and Nancy Wilson render the notion of sending Led Zep aloft again as unnecessary as a second season of NBC’s Animal Practice. As evidenced on a mighty new album, Fanatic, and in concert Sunday night at Hard Rock Live on the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino grounds, Heart have apparently gained full custody of Led Zep’s muscular, masterful sound.
Heart was called the “female Led Zeppelin” almost from the beginning of the group’s career in the mid-’70s thanks to Ann’s Plant-worthy vocal range and sister Nancy’s aggressive approach on acoustic guitar. That blend of light and heavy music made early Heart albums like Little Queen sound like side one of Led Zeppelin IV.
The new version of Heart — lead guitarist Craig Bartock, drummer Ben Smith, bassist Dan Rothchild (son of The Doors and Janis Joplin producer Paul Rothchild) and keyboardist Debbie Shair — proved to be the heaviest, toughest, most precise and best incarnation of this band since the Fisher-DeRosier-Leese era in the ’70s.
Heart didn’t shy away from the mystical Zeppelin sound in concert Sunday night as it bookended its 80-minute set with Zeppelin covers. Heart opened to the introductory keyboard strains of Physical Graffiti’s In the Light which gave way to the beefy title track of Fanatic. The band closed with a full performance of Led Zep IV’s Misty Mountain Hop. In between the covers, four selections from the return-to-form Fanatic, like the mid-tempo Walkin’ Good (with Nancy, 58, on lead vocals) and the ferocious 59 Crunch, seamlessly fit among Heart staples like Crazy on You, Barracuda and Heartless.
Heart’s 1978 hit Straight On proved the evening’s highlight. Smith and Rothchild’s rhythm section carved a massive bottom that amplified the song’s funk-oriented roots. Ann prefaced Straight On with a quip that seemed to allude to the band’s interpersonal romantic turmoil at the time the tune was recorded for the Dog & Butterfly album. “Here’s a song from the swinging ’70s. It’s all myth now.”
The sound mix at the Hard Rock was clean and clear so Nancy’s acoustic guitar wasn’t lost amid the other musicians as she played the chorus hook of Straight On. Bartock’s electric guitar, blended with Shair’s keyboards, stood in for the original Tower of Power horn section on a crunching Even It Up and, in the most drastic re-arrangement of an old song, Shair evoked the sound of a classical string section on the verses of Dog & Butterfly.
Ann, 62, was battling a cold, which gave her voice a huskiness on demanding numbers like What About Love. But that detriment actually turned in her favor.
“You’re listening to a human,” she warned her audience and asked for help to get her through the power ballad, Alone, which was stripped of its ’80s production gloss to better serve as a vocal showcase. Though diminished, Ann, long-hailed as one of rock’s greatest vocalists, still managed to hit most of the stratospheric notes on Alone and, now in an uncustomary underdog role, effectively earned greater fan appreciation for her candor, professionalism and sheer will power.
Folk singer Shawn Colvin opened the show with a brief solo acoustic set that shunned her one crossover pop hit, Sunny Came Home, but engaged nonetheless as she teased that her downbeat, simple tunes, strummed on guitar, served as Heart’s “warm-down act.”
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