Erika Wennerstrom is a woman of few words, unless she's got a guitar on her shoulder and she's singing. In the liner notes of the band's demo, she writes, "I've wanted to be a songwriter and performer since I was born." This is plain to see when she gets on a stage.
I witnessed it on a recent September night in the Southgate House ballroom. I was there to see a Rock band my friends had been raving about for weeks — The Heartless Bastards. I saw an unassuming, shy blonde girl (Wennerstrom) sitting at the bar having drinks. I didn't realize this petite, quiet person was about to get onstage and absolutely blow the crowd away with her voice. But that's just what she did.
Wennerstrom has a distinctive wail and growl that a lot of Rock singers aspire to, and most never attain, probably because she has what a lot of performers lack — true sincerity. When you listen to her, you can feel the conviction behind her music, and you can't help but be affected by it.
She lays it all on the line in her lyrics, and then the band backs it up with hook-laden guitar riffs and driving rhythm.
When I sat down with Wennerstrom and the rest of the Heartless Bastards (Dave Colvin, drums; Michael Weinel, guitar; and Mike Lamping, bass) recently for an interview, I encountered her shy side again. But her passion for music always comes through, no matter what. "I love music. I love all different kinds of music," she says.
Unlike some projects, the Heartless Bastards had a name long before they even formed. "Probably six years ago, me and Mike (Lamping) were at a bar in Dayton and we were playing one of those Mega Touch screens, you know those quiz games?" Wennerstrom tells me. "And they asked what Tom Petty's backing band was, and one of the choices was, 'Tom Petty and the Heartless Bastards.' We just thought it was really funny."
The Heartless Bastards (sans Tom Petty) had a demo before they completely formed, too. "Me and Dave (Colvin) recorded in December," Wennerstrom says, "but at the time I couldn't find the band. And then I ended up running into Mike (Weinel) later, and asked him if he'd be interested, and we played and that worked out." And, in true Rock fashion, the Bastards have already had one lineup change, with the departure of their former bassist (due to several scheduling conflicts), and the introduction of Lamping into the group.
They played their debut show to wowed crowds at The Comet in August and have been playing various out-of-town and hometown gigs since. Folks at those shows have been snapping up copies of the band's self-titled, five-song demo. Wennerstrom has passed out hundreds at out-of-town shows and around Cincinnati, and I suspect the fans who took them for free would've gladly paid once they got the music home and into their stereos. Yes, it's a demo, but, yes, it's that good.
It has been making the rounds for months now, underground like a drug, and just as addictive. Wennerstrom wrote all the songs, and recorded with various local music heavy hitters last December at Ultrasuede Studio. Shannon McGee (formerly of The Fairmount Girls) recorded it, and Reuben Glaser (of Viva La Foxx, Pearlene), current Bastards drummer Colvin and Jesse Ebaugh (also of Pearlene) backed Wennerstrom up.
It is an amazing recording. With a touch more polish and a few more tracks, it'll make the Bastards a hell of a debut album. All five tracks on the disc are impressive. Wennerstrom's songs are soulful, passionate, insightful, intelligent and packed to the gills with raw Rock & Roll power.
When asked if this sampling will ever become a full album, Wennerstrom says, "We'd definitely like to make another one — re-do everything we did with the full band and add some other songs. It'd be nice to find a label first though, because that costs a fortune. Not a major label, though."
Guitarist Weinel quips, "Or a sugar daddy. That'd make a great label — 'Sugar Daddy Records.' "
THE HEARTLESS BASTARDS (theheartlessbastards.com) play Saturday at The Cavern with Moth.