Live Review: Heartless Bastards with Futurebirds and Dana Falconberry at Metro Chicago

I arrived at Metro Chicago for the Heartless Bastards show earlier than I had originally planned, which is to say I was able to catch the very first act on the bill for once. Dana Falconberry was finishing up her set and I saw just enough of the folk songstress to throw out an assertion: she needs to sing at either my wedding or my funeral. In a flowery sleeveless dress, Falconberry had the voice and look of a songbird, brightening an otherwise dark and rainy Monday evening with her unassuming disposition and cheery vocals. Her 6-piece band is really a folk orchestra; in addition to the old standby’s like acoustic guitar and keyboard, their instrumental smorgasbord included melodica, cello, and electric banjo. With a band composed of four women, cooing damn-near-spiritual soprano harmonies were achieved, something that would be next to impossible for a more testosterone-fueled onstage dynamic. The band Nickel Creek makes for a nice reference point for their sound, especially on songs like “Petoskey Stone” off 2012′s Leelenau. Falconberry’s songs have a unique ability to capture the sounds made by nature’s instruments: the wind, the rushing streams, and the stillness of night in the desert. I would certainly recommend getting to the venue early to check them out. Futurebirds were up next and I was already singing the lineup’s praises in my mind.

Futurebirds are a 6-piece folk rock band from Athens, GA  and last spring they caught my eye with Seney-Stovall—an 8 song Record Store Day release recorded during an intimate live performance at Seney-Stovall chapel in Athens. The scraggly group rolled onstage in a barrage of flannel, donning beards and hair in varying stages of growth, as they addressed the crowd, “This is great. I didn’t know people went to shows on Monday nights.” I take pride in Chicago’s zest for music, and the band certainly was appreciative too.

Futurebirds are a gentler, more refined version of some of their folk rock contemporaries (like Deer Tick); they’re Americana through and through (see: Budweiser and American flag on acoustic guitar) but unafraid to own their solid vocals in a genre that allows and even celebrates pitch mistakes and rasp. Three main singers stood at the foreground of the stage and the lead vocal switched depending on the song; however, the group harmonies were a mainstay. There are a lot of great folk singers in the indie scene now; but a band whose collective voice can bring one to near tears, on ballads and anthems alike, is something special. The highlight of their set was either “Johnny Utah,” their song about Keanu Reeves, or “Wild Heart,” the anthem whose lyrics inspired my latest idea for a tattoo I won’t actually get: “Blame it on my wild heart.” I highly recommend this band.

There was an unusually long break between sets—it was at least 45 minutes before Heartless Bastards would take the stage—so I wandered around a bit. I slyly pulled the staples from a Japandroids poster and slid it into my coat. A girl who wanted to “get high before the show,” asked me for advisement on their re-entry policy. I updated her and indicated the bathroom was probably her best option.

Time started to drag a bit, but when the Bastards hit the stage they led off with a ferocious performance of “The Mountain” that had the crowd singing the marquee lyrics “…take it on down the line.” No matter how good the sound is for an opening set, the difference in the setup for the headliner is always incredible. Singer Erika Wennerstrom (check our interview with her here) occupied the left side of the stage in jeans and a short denim jacket  but the middle of the stage was home to an elevated drum kit, the kind you see in metal videos, and the elevation certainly seemed to make them hit just a little harder.

In my interview with Wennerstrom, we discussed the addition of guitarist Mark Nathan to the lineup and the doors his presence opens. I watched closely for his shining moments and one in particular came on the solo for “Only For You.” An impressive lead guitar solo erupted from the right side of the stage in all its vibrato-laden glory, something that increasingly becoming extinct in today’s rock. Their cover of Junior Kimbrough’s “Done Got Old” fit nicely into the evening; the blues lament on getting older could have been written by Wennestrom herself. The Bastards set was heavily weighted in songs off 2012′s Arrow thoughit included personal favorites “Skin and Bone” and “Got To Have Rock and Roll.” On “Skin and Bone,” a folk song that begins with maracas and bongos, Heidi Johnson joined the band on stage to sing along. Their set felt like a band well-versed in their material hitting that live stride. Heartless Bastards’ sound hangs upon the delicately throaty voice of Wennerstrom, and the new album’s somber tones come through beautifully in a live setting.

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