Heartless Bastards (Radio Room)
Marnie Stern (Club De Ville)
SXSW Wednesday Afternoon, March 18
Erika Wennerstrom’s bandmates give her a tremendously wide berth onstage, three grizzled gentlemen crowding demurely to our far right as she holds court on the left, the sort of blast radius you’d give an M-80 or a mountain lion. The Heartless Bastards leader is a bellower indeed; “Can’t do the things I used to do/’Cause I feel old,” she demurely howls at the onset of the Austin-by-way-of-Ohio band’s 2:30 p.m. set at Paste magazine’s afternoon fete (say what you will, but that mag is fuckin’ resilient), and she sounds old too, or wiser, wearier, more wizened — Beth Ditto with less grandstanding, PJ Harvey with even more Southern discomfort.
Her band’s gnarled, rumbling roots rock is fairly straightforward, a flat, dependable terrain across which her moans can carry for miles, possibly into neighboring counties. The imagery is elemental and overwhelming: tornadoes, endless oceans, etc. (See their latest, The Mountain.) Toward the end the Bastards get a bit rowdier and trickier, toying with dynamics and time signatures, but mostly this is a brutally straightforward, gale-force wind it’s an honor to stagger into. They’re at Stubb’s tonight opening for the Decemberists, a comparison that can only exacerbate the intensity and make those guys look even meeker, writing sonnets and shit about natural disasters in lieu of resoundingly embodying them.
NYC’s own finger-tapping ingenue, Marnie Stern, is also audible from several blocks away — both her alarmingly childlike wail and the manic, endless deedly deedly deedly guitar-shredding that defines her. You know that line of praise for minimalist bands that goes “they never waste a note”? Generally 70 percent of Marnie’s notes are in a sense “wasted,” just a torrent of technically precise but melodically/rhythmically wobbly exuberance, like filling a shot glass with a fire hose. Backed by bass and drums that ain’t exactly demure themselves, she takes some getting used to — we’re talking more treble than you can probably imagine — but the goofiness and absurdity of it all is winsome to say the least, as is the stage banter. “It’s my birthday, oh my goodness!” “Everyone please clap.” “Alrriiiiggght!”