Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
by Linda Cain
photos: Roman Sobus
It is heartening (pardon the pun) to know that the royal ladies of classic rock are (to quote the late Johnny Winter) “still alive and well” and rockin’, especially in light of the far too numerous deaths in the music world this year (and it’s only May). Back in the 1970s, when sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson began making a name for themselves in the male-dominated world of rock music, there were already far too many casualties of talented young musicians who joined the 27 club. It was an especially tough road for women, who are often judged more harshly than their male counterparts. Janis Joplin didn’t make it and, more recently, Amy Winehouse left this mortal coil. But on this night, the tables were turned; it was a full-on celebration of women power on stage.
This was mostly an older crowd (eligible for senior discounts) who came to hear and cheer the Wilson sisters as they performed their hit songs: “Magic Man,” “Barracuda,” “Crazy On You,” “Straight On” and more.
Yet it was more than simple nostalgia that thrilled the audience on this special, sold out night in Waukegan; rather, it was a life-affirming experience to see the queens of Heart live in concert, looking and sounding timeless and ageless. And it was a great deal of fun!
Showtime started promptly at 7:30 p.m. with a powerhouse set from Mindi Abair & The Boneshakers, featuring Sweet Pea Atkinson. It’s tough to be the opening act. Folks aren’t paying attention, they are milling about, searching for their seats, grabbing a drink, etc. However, once fiery saxophone player Mindi Abair and company hit the stage, it didn’t take the dynamic quintet very long to command the audience’s full attention.
The band kicked off with the instrumental, “Wild Heart,” the title track from Mindi’s Grammy nominated album from last year. Mindi’s soaring sax and the band’s punchy rhythms called the fans to their seats where they were treated to a half-hour set that earned the band cheers, applause, whistles and ovations, not to mention a long line of eager new fans at the CD table in the lobby after her show.
For the second number, Mindi introduced “I Can’t Lose,” a positive song that she wrote about coming into your own, being a fully confident winner and overcoming defeat. The crowd cheered the music and the message. She had the audience captive now as she alternated between sax and vocals. The crowd loudly applauded her every power-packed solo; the petite performer has technique and lung-power to spare, not to mention a boatload of showmanship. She has learned from the best, having backed up everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Aerosmith and two seasons worth of American Idol contestants as a member of the house band.
Next up, Mindi introduced singer Sweet Pea Atkinson, an elder statesmen of soul, R&B and funk who has worked with Bonnie Raitt, Was (Not Was) and Bob Seger. Dressed to the nines, Sweet Pea sauntered out on stage as the band thumped out the intro to the beat-heavy “Ball and Chain” while the soulful singer got the crowd into the groove, with help from Mindi, her alto sax wailing and her lithe body swaying.
The band left the stage while drummer Third Richardson (that’s really his name) played a brief, athletic drum solo to pump up the crowd. Mindi and guitarist Randy Jacobs returned, stood center stage and lit out on a soaring excursion of the classic “Summertime”. Bassist Derek Frank rejoined the party to funk things up. Jacobs got to strut his stuff, playing a manic blues-rock solo worthy of Buddy Guy. He turned a trick that even Buddy hasn’t done yet; Jacobs hoisted his leg in the air and hooked it over his guitar’s neck, without missing a note. The crowd responded with wild applause and hoots.
Sweet Pea returned for the final number, a lengthy reworking of James Brown’s “Cold Sweat” that, to quote Jacobs, “is part B.B. King and part James Brown.” The entire band got to work out, weaving in and out of tempos and rhythms while exploring rock, funk, R&B and jammin’ jazz, with a groovy solo from keyboardist Rodney Lee. Playing off each other, Mindi and Sweet Pea displayed their significant chops, much to the crowd’s approval. With only a 30-minute time slot, Mindi & the Boneshakers managed to fill it with a hefty dose of jazz, rock, funk, blues, soul and R&B that certainly made them plenty of new fans.
After a half-hour break, the faithful were called back into the theater at 8:35, as the lights dimmed and fog swirled to the sound of George Harrison’s “Within You Without You” over the speakers. The thumping bass line to “Magic Man” signaled that the band was onstage and the fans all rose from their seats, standing and cheering in anticipation. The lights came up and there they were: blonde-haired, perfectly coifed Nancy Wilson on rhythm guitar and sister Ann, her long, dark hair in braids and bangs, belting out the lyrics about a young lass leaving home; she sounded as girlish and youthful as she did when Heart first recorded the indelible hit song. The audience stood the entire time, but politely sat down for the next tune, a ballad.
“What About Love,” featured glorious harmonies between the sisters, but Ann wasn’t about to get too mellow, as she paced the stage, building up to the big finish as the band crescendo-ed and she sang the final power notes to huge cheers.
They moved right into rock’n’roll with “Kick It Out,” and Ann sounded sassy as ever. Nancy mostly played rhythm guitar throughout the evening with longtime bandmate Craig Bartock doing the heavy lifting on lead guitar.
Nancy announced that a new Heart CD will drop in July and they debuted the title track, “Beautiful Broken” a hard-driving number featuring Ann’s agitated vocals and machine gun-fire drums by Ben Smith that wouldn’t sound out of place in Cheap Trick’s repertoire. Which is perfect because Heart is touring with Cheap Trick and Joan Jett this summer, and will appear in Chicago at Northerly Island (First Merit Bank Pavilion) on July 19.
Now it was time for a love song as Nancy strapped on her electric mandolin and sweetly sang “These Dreams,” while Ann provided heavenly harmonies and played her black, glittery acoustic guitar. A dreamy light show accompanied the hit ballad from the 1980s.
Heart covered a song by the artist Ne-Yo titled “Two,” about a couple of lovers that Nancy sang. The lush background music was provided by three keyboardists (the bass player, Dan Rothchild, and guitarist Bartock ditched their gear for keyboards to join Chris Joyner on the 88s). The rest of the music was by Nancy on rhythm guitar and drummer Smith. It all combined for an orchestral-sounding romantic mood, not unlike a movie soundtrack. Which is something that Nancy is known for, having scored films such as Almost Famous, Vanilla Sky and Jerry Maguire.
Another ballad, “Sand,” was dedicated to David Bowie, Prince and the other recently departed music giants. The folksy tune with poetic lyrics featured soaring sisterly harmonies.
A piano solo introduced the next song, with the spotlight shining on Ann, as the fans instantly recognized the opening lyrics and cheered on the singer for “How Do I Get You Alone.” Ann owned the song, filling the ballad with longing, passion and nuance; she was rewarded with cheers and a standing ovation.
The mood quickly shifted as the drums thumped and the crowd clapped in time, egged on by Ann who prowled the stage as Nancy introduced the band members. The band vamped into a funky instrumental as Ann commanded: “Get up offa dat thang.” The fans obliged and were up and dancing as Heart segued into “Straight On.”
A new song, “I Jump,” was next. Ann introduced it by saying: “Nancy got married last year, I got married.” It wasn’t another romantic ballad. Bartock played a wicked guitar on this rockin’ number as the vocal harmonies echoed a warning about jumping into a relationship like jumping into a fire, or off a cliff. The song’s tension mounted as Ann sang with abandon about throwing caution to the wind and taking a chance on love. The audience loved it!
It was now Nancy’s turn in the spotlight as she played her acoustic guitar in a semi-classical style and that segued into “Crazy On You,” as the crowd cheered and rose to its collective feet.
They remained standing as Heart ripped through “Barracuda,” with Nancy playing the familiar guitar solo on her Gibson. The band left the stage after this number at 9:30 p.m. as the fans clamored for more.
The Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famers soon returned for the three song grand finale, a fond tribute to Led Zeppelin complete with fog and light show: “Immigrant Song,” “No Quarter” and “Misty Mountain Hop.”
Heart left the stage at 9:50 p.m. after turning in a terrific 15-song, 80-minute performance, that was well-paced with top-notch sound, lighting and special effects. Even though they have performed their hits countless times over the past four decades, Ann and Nancy Wilson’s enthusiasm, passion and love for the music was palpable on this Spring night in Waukegan, as was the audience’s in return.
Who else but Heart could have done justice to “Stairway To Heaven” for the Kennedy Center Honors, hosted by the Obamas, that feted Led Zeppelin in 2013? Even Robert Plant grew teary-eyed over Heart’s perfect rendition with Jason Bonham on drums; their performance that historic night earned a standing ovation from the entire concert hall filled with dignitaries.
And so the Wilson sisters continue on their rock ‘n’ roll journey, undiminished, continuing to take chances, while honoring the past. When not working with Heart, the sisters keep busy on their own. Nancy is prolific at contributing to film and TV soundtracks. Ann enjoys performing blues and roots songs at smaller venues with her group Ann Wilson Thing. She also recently performed in tributes to Judy Garland and Bob Dylan.
Linda Cain is the managing editor and founder of Chicago Blues Guide. A graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, she has been writing about music and editing publications since the 1970s.