I attended eighty-two concerts last year. You name it I saw it; across each genre there were both definite highlights and a few letdowns. On the rare occasion did I see a show that sparked my wit, causing my writing to go into a hyberbolic overdrive. I hate to use such big words to describe a show, especially when it tends to make me look like a gushing teenager seeing his first nudie flick.
But Kathy Mattea at Akron’s Tangier last October was one of those experiences. Her voice, a concealed WMD if there was one, lit up the old dinner theater accompanied only by a backup guitar and a single white spotlight. There were no theatrics to speak of; her voice was the only weapon she needed. And it brought down the house.
The same thing went for Jazz trumpeter Chris Botti. His Rocksino show was a tad more theatrical; the lighting package complemented the glitz of the Jazz ensemble he had collected onstage.
Well, for the first time in this calendar year a performance gave me goosebumps and an unfettered desire to devolve into unchecked hyperbole.
Ann Wilson, taking a break from the legendary Rock Hall inductee outfit Heart, played a solo gig at Warren, Ohio’s W.D. Packard Music Hall. This is one of those shows that really puts faith back into a hardened music writer who has slogged through a dozen uninspired shows this year. The reward? I suppose hearing Ms. Wilson, whose 67th birthday is today, giving a Master Class on “How To Be A Rock Star.”
Heart headlined last summer as part of the “Rock Hall Three For All” tour. Ms. Wilson had some trouble hitting some of the notes and, upon their encore of Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” didn’t even attempt to hit any of the higher notes. I tossed it up to an aging songstress whose voice was, much like many of her contemporaries, sadly behind her. Wow. After hearing her Saturday night I’m gonna amend that: She must’ve been sick that night because her performance at Packard was nothing short of spectacular. She hit every note easily as she swaggered across the stage; prancing with the grace of a model as she would approach the mic stand.
Just to be clear: We’re not talking about a washed-up ’70s rocker who shows up for the nostalgia factor to prey upon her audience. Wilson belted out these songs with the ferocity of a ’70s rocker who still has sway over her audience. And those in attendance were hypnotized by the melodic power of her stage presence.
The evening provided some Heart hits; both “Barracuda” and “Crazy On You” were two early-set offerings, followed by a quiet version of “Alone” towards the end of the night.
But the majority of the set was cover tunes made famous by others. Her take on Aretha’s “Ain’t No Way” had a full-blown Gospel revival sound, complete with a faux-Hammond B3 accompaniment.
Introducing herself to the audience as “An old hippie” she revealed a new tune, “Fool No More” after asking the audience, “How many minutes do we spend considering things?,” instead of taking action. She followed that up by saying, “We spend an awful lot of time wasting time.”
The bluesy new tune (“Fool No More”) asks us to not just blankly stare at a beautiful creek running by our backyard, but to take a moment and dip our hands into the water. I couldn’t help but wonder, as a concert photographer, if she was subtly referring to people snapping away with their cell phones, clicking off overexposed, blurry pictures as opposed to living in the moment and enjoying the experience? I suppose her meaning was much more nebulous than that, but, hey, the analogy still works.
In a mid-set surprise she pulled out a fantastic cover of Yes’ “I’ve Seen All Good People.” A difficult song to master, she pulled it off with aplomb. Two songs later she then hit us with the Peter Gabriel/Kate Bush collaboration “Don’t Give Up” and turned it into a haunting rumination on persistence.
Rounding out the show before two encores she tackled The Who’s “Love, Reign O’er Me.” Holy crap. She knocked that out of the park; Daltrey’s simmering rendition pales in comparison to Wilson’s throaty, ballsy take on the classic.
The band briefly left the stage only to return for two two-song encores. Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” may have been the only misfire of the night; it was lacking the energy of the original. Wilson then served up “Ain’t No Way” in a rousing cover. After re-appearing for the second encore the band tore into the 1930s classic “I Put A Spell On You.” This was the highlight of the whole night; Wilson’s mastery of this perennial tune was incredible. Her vocals didn’t waver once and she hit every note with no problem.
Sadly, Youngstown’s Air Show was Saturday evening and the 2200-seat Packard was barely half-full. I mourn for the folks who missed this show; it was definitely in my top three shows for this calendar year. Ann just announced a third leg of this tour for later in the year; let’s hope she decides to return to Northeast Ohio. This is a concert that you need to attend.
I promised you some hyperbole, so here goes: Ann Wilson’s voice and stage presence are like a good scotch. She’s one of the grand dames of Rock and Roll and seems to only be getting better with age. When most folks her age are looking to start collecting a pension and cash in on their AARP benefits, she’s riding in a tour bus tearing up venues all over the country.
If I were a twenty-something singer I’d be scared for my job security.
Ann Wilson’s the real deal.