It has been more than 40 years since sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart broke into the famously misogynistic boys’ club that is rock and roll and achieved commercial success with their debut album Dreamboat Annie. At a time when women in music had the option to be—as Ann Wilson has put it—“folk singers or cheesecake,” Heart wrote their own rules and served as their own role models. Early on the sisters were met with sexist gossip and a patronizing music industry, which they didn’t take lying down but absorbed as furious songwriting fuel for what became their signature song “Barracuda.” Unlike many of their contemporaries, Ann and Nancy Wilson have emerged from decades of stardom not only unscathed but reinvigorated. In 2015 and 2016 vocalist Ann Wilson released two EPs, insouciantly dubbed The Ann Wilson Thing!, consisting of new material and reinvented covers. Last year Heart released Beautiful Broken, a hodge-podge of new and old Heart songs, many reinterpreted sans synthesizers. Not wanting to tire herself or the world of the umpteenth rendition of Heart’s greatest hits, in 2017 we find Ann Wilson at a peculiar crossroads and in a state of creative upheaval. For reasons rumoured to be related to personal rifts, which might be expected of siblings and longtime professional partners, the sisters are taking a break from Heart to embark on their solo projects. On Wednesday, March 22, Ann Wilson treated fans at the Charleston Music Hall to an evening of covers and solo songwriting projects peppered, of course, with a few obligatory but no less enjoyable selections from Heart. Though solo side-projects for the sisters are nothing new, Ann Wilson’s current tour “Ann Wilson of Heart” seems to mark a distinct shift in perspective, a sort of celebratory arrival. Indeed early on the show she declared the theme of the evening to be mindfulness—mindfulness of the present moment, of love, of creativity.
“Can you see the real me?” Ann Wilson bellowed in response to the roaring audience when she emerged onstage, launching into an unexpected, power-packed cover of the Who’s “The Real Me.” From there she satiated the audience with “Barracuda,” her youthful vocalization transporting us back to 1977. My jaw dropped when the band dipped into “Crazy on You” and whisked us away before we could register the absence of Nancy’s famous acoustic guitar intro. Wilson paused, not for a breather but to introduce the band, which included past members of Heart Craig Bartock and Denny Fongheiser. “We don’t have a name,” she crooned, “but this is my thing. We have a mix of new songs, old songs, and we’re going to play some covers that’ll curl your hair.” This introduction set the tone for the evening. We were seeing “the real” Ann Wilson, a powerhouse informed by decades of stardom who has arrived at a moment of artistic freedom and personal clarity.
Though later in the evening we were treated to familiar renditions of “What About Love” and “Alone,” Ann made no mention of Nancy and only alluded to Heart when discussing how life on the road inspired “Anguish,” a pounding, twangy new love song about separation and desire. The “Ann Wilson of Heart Tour” is not Heart. This is not a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer resting on her laurels, rather this is a living legend and working artist inviting us to join her in the present moment. This tour is an intimate, privileged window into the life and process of Ann Wilson—a dynamic, collaborative exercise in creativity between the audience and artist. Watching Ann Wilson find her groove with the new nameless band and listening to her indulge the inspiration behind her lyrics for love songs like “Fool No More” gave me the sense that we were involved in the creation of something new and witnessing her artistic output in real time.
For any other performer an evening of covers including Jimi Hendrix’s “Manic Depression” and the Black Crowes’ “She Talks to Angels” might sound contrived, but Ann Wilson’s case is exceptional. Each cover was soul-stirring and enriching, offering the audience a greater understanding of Wilson’s personal inspiration. In one evening Ann Wilson seemed to shake classic rock from its slumber. She tapped into our tenuous political moment with an energized reworking of the lyrics to Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” layered over the familiar drum pattern of “Sympathy for the Devil.” She offered encouragement and a call to mindfulness with a cover of Yes’ “I’ve Seen All Good People.” At times she felt like just another fan of the music, surprising herself with her still impressive vocal range, enthusiastically relaying her childhood associations with songs like “Ain’t No Way” and “Danger Zone,” and displaying unabashed favoritism with the inclusion of two more songs by the Who— ”Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Love Reign O’er Me.” Mind you, this is the skilled lyricist and rockstar who has been universally lauded as the best female vocalist in rock and roll history—each cover was practically a reinvention of the original and each felt like a personalized gift for the audience.
The audience was thrilled and invigorated from start to finish by the balance of old and new material. Wilson herself seemed taken with the Charleston Music Hall, noting that the space had “a lot of soul,” which I’m sure a great deal could be attributed to the soul she brought with her. While I have poured over videos of live performances from the late 70s and envy those who saw Heart in the heyday of packed arenas, big hair and flowing Renaissance dresses, decades later none of Ann Wilson’s soul or passion has been lost. Wilson succeeded in defying expectations, offering a concert informed by history without slinking into nostalgia. The “Ann Wilson of Heart” tour is solidly present and forward-looking. Ann Wilson has been writing her own rules for over 40 years, and with this tour she has graced her fans with an experience that is real, unpretentious, and exploratory. Wilson is far from retiring, rather she is giving herself time to create new material, reflect on the material that has been important to her, and give the audience something to be optimistic about.