In the midst of a spring co-headlining tour, alt-country pioneers Old 97s opened for critical darlings Heartless Bastards Tuesday night at Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg. It was the first of two New York City shows for the tour; two nights later, the bands flipped the bill at Manhattan’s Irving Plaza.
The Music Hall was packed by the time the ‘Bastards hit the stage, and the band’s moody, atmospheric garage rock riffs filled the club as the band ripped through its catalog, focusing heavily on its latest release, 2015’s Restless Ones.
Unfortunately for the ‘Bastards, following the ’97s proved too a difficult task on this night. Songwriter and powerhouse vocalist Erika Wennerstrom led her band through its set with a seemingly indifferent stage presence, for some reason unable to summon the magnetism that makes the band’s recordings so compelling. About five songs in, my companion leaned over and yelled in my ear, “Is she drunk, or just hung over?!?” The quip earned laughs at the time but was spot-on nonetheless; Wennerstrom seemed to be going through the motions on Tuesday, showing practically zero enthusiasm and offering little in the way of stage banter or audience engagement. Hey the band sounded great — but its performance, despite being propelled by a capacity crowd that mouthed nearly every word, lacked spontaneity and spark. Frankly, it was dull as hell.
But a lot of the disappointment in the Heartless Bastards’ performance can be blamed on the Old 97s, who ripped through a rollicking rave-up setlist that spanned the band’s 25-year history, earning fans from those in my party who came mainly to see the Wennerstrom and Co. Frontman Rhett Miller danced, smiled, cajoled, and engaged his audience in a way the Wennerstrom never did; Miller’s done this long enough to know that glowing album reviews and word-of-mouth buzz eventually fade away, and at some point you have to reward the people that paid their hard-earned dough to see you play live with energy and enthusiasm.
Before leaving the stage, Miller implored the audience to cross the East River for Thursday’s show to hear a longer Old 97s setlist in his band’s headlining slot. I wish I had, because whether Wennerstrom was drunk or just hung over on Tuesday remains a mystery. In the meantime, I’ll just listen to her fantastic albums and rue what could have, should have been a dynamite double-bill.
The Heartless Bastards/Old 97s co-headlining tour continues through May; dates below.
Heartless Bastards / Old 97′s Tour Dates
5/13/16 – Boston, MA – Royale Boston
5/14/16 – Philadelphia, PA- Union Transfer
5/15/16 – Buffalo, NY – Traif Music Hall
5/16/16 – Toronto, Ontario – Lee’s Palace
5/18/16 – Cleveland, OH – Beachland Ballroom
5/19/16 – Cincinnati, OH – The Woodward Theater
5/20/16 – Cincinnati, OH – The Woodward Theater
5/21/16 – Chicago, IL – Thalia Hall
5/22/16 – Minneapolis, MN – First Avenue
5/24/16 – St. Louis, MO – The Ready Room
5/25/16 -Tulsa, OK – Cain’s Ballroom
%= w/ opener BJ Barham (of American Aquarium)