Whole Lotta Heart

Heart rides Hall of Fame induction and Led Zeppelin tribute into a hot summer tour

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eart singer Ann Wilson has a simple philosophy these days about how she and sister Nancy Wilson should go about their career.

“At this point in our career, at this point in our creative life, there’s no point at all in not doing exactly what we feel like doing,” she says.

The Wilson sisters and Heart have certainly earned that privilege. The group has pretty much achieved everything a band could want out of a career. Heart has had huge success, selling more than 35 million albums and notching 21 Top 40 hit singles, headlining the biggest arenas along the way. The Wilson sisters in particular have had a major impact on music as well, helping open doors for several generations of female artists. And Ann is universally hailed as one of Rock’s greatest female singers, while Nancy has shown that as a guitarist, a woman can hold her own.

The impact of the Wilson sisters and Heart was confirmed earlier this year when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. To say the least, Ann was blown away by the recognition.

“If you’re thinking of Rock as an institution, it is definitely the highest honor,” she says. “You can’t go any higher than that. It’s like getting an Oscar. So it was just an amazing feeling.”

Now the Wilson sisters and Heart are getting back to work — but doing something that very much meets their criterion of having fun.

The band’s summer tour (coming to Riverbend on July 27) is with drummer Jason Bonham, son of late Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham, who is bringing his “Jason Bonham’s Led Zeppelin Experience” show to open the concert. Bonham will also join Heart to play an extended encore of Led Zeppelin songs to close out the evening.

For musicians like the Wilson sisters, it’s obviously a kick to play Zeppelin songs with a musician who has direct ties to the band (he stepped in to take his father’s drummer slot when the other members of Led Zeppelin reunited for a final performance in 2007 in London). Heart has regularly played multiple Led Zeppelin songs in concert and the Wilson sisters consider the British Rock legends one of their biggest influences.

“They were teachers for us,” Ann says. “I mean, we had a few different artists that we really listened to deeply and learned from. Paul Simon was another one. The Beatles were another one. But I think the thing about Zeppelin that was really, really special to us was the acoustic, the Rock inside of the acoustic. They somehow managed to get all of those really unusual tunings and just-so off-the-wall timing things into an acoustic setting. I mean, Nancy just sat up and saluted when she heard that. That’s what she’s like as a person and as a guitarist.

“I think for me, Robert Plant sang in my range, so I learned from him a lot about pronunciation, because Rock singers, especially women Rock singers, I think, sometimes blow it with pronunciation,” she continues. “They really try to sound black or Southern when they’re not. So Robert Plant and Elton John, I think, were both responsible for helping me learn how to say words.”

The Wilson sisters got a taste of performing with Bonham when Heart and the drummer teamed up to perform the Zeppelin classic “Stairway to Heaven” at December’s Kennedy Center Honors gala honoring the three surviving members of Zeppelin, who seemed visibly moved by the performance. That collaboration sparked the idea for this summer’s tour.

The tour with Bonham figures to be another high point in what has been a busy, rewarding — and, yes, fun — past couple of years for Heart.

The period has seen the group release a forward-looking studio album, Fanatic, which stands up to the best Heart albums of the ’70s and ’80s. Produced by Ben Mink, the spirited effort found the group experimenting liberally with sonics. The title song opens the album with an attention-getting buzzing tone that makes one go: “Is that a guitar? A synthesizer? A combination of the two?” It doesn’t matter. It just sounds cool. And that’s just a start. Electronic tones greet the listener on “Skin and Bones,” giving the song a bit of a futuristic accent, and Techno Funk touches flavor “Million Miles.” 

“He’s a guy who is really dead set in the present,” Ann says of Mink. “So he’s going to pay respect to us and who we are, but he’s always going to push us. And he really has a great sonic imagination and ability to come up with crazy ideas that really refer to us in an honest way.”

Heart also released a career-spanning box set, Strange Euphoria, which was populated with a generous number of demos, rare live cuts and unreleased tunes spanning the band’s career. The outtakes are a highlight of the set for Ann.

“What I like most about it was the off-the-wall stuff, the real unusual, strange stuff, the between-takes funny stuff … that just seems like a bunch of people screaming and jamming and having a party,” Wilson says. “That’s the kind of stuff that reminds me of what Heart really was at the beginning. It was a party band. We used to party together. And it went from that to playing clubs to playing (larger concerts). So on the box set there are a few points where it touches on that real loose, real jam-type feeling. That’s my favorite part.”

There was also an autobiography on the Wilson sisters and Heart called Kicking & Dreaming, which was published last fall.

Ann says she and Nancy didn’t hold back in telling their story, which chronicled the various highs and lows of Heart’s career, the band’s music and the challenges that came with being among the first women to front, write music and play instruments in a hard-rocking band, as well as the private lives they lived along the way.

“We decided pretty early on there was really no point in doing it if we were just going to do a big covered-up whitewash,” Ann says. “What’s the point? You might as well just stay silent if you’re going to keep everything secret. So we told our story as openly and honestly as we can.” 

HEART performs at Riverbend Music Center on July 27. More info: riverbend.org.

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