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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Ann Wilson Takes Heart Past Ballads

With Heart, you have to take the good with the bad: there’s the strength of Ann Wilson’s power voice, and the annoying cliches of that most manipulative of heavy-pop song-forms, the power ballad.

Overall, the balance tilted toward the good Friday night at the Pacific Amphitheatre, where Heart played to a near-capacity crowd. Wilson sang with assurance and splendid control throughout the nearly two-hour concert, and the show’s pacing doled out the heavy-ballad syrup in well-spaced dosages. At least, that is, until near the end, when Heart served up a triple dip of audio molasses. Wilson may have sung impressively, but the heavenly chorus itself couldn’t redeem an absurd “True Romance” potboiler like “All I Wanna Do Is Make Love to You.”

Since “What About Love?” hit the Top Ten in 1985, power ballads have transplanted Heart from the intensive care ward to a platinum-plated state of commercial health. The form is utterly predictable, with its chiming keyboards, slab-like chords, soar-to-the-empyrean guitar solos, and chorus hooks so big, blatant and oft-repeated that good taste is no defense against them.

Until “Alone,” “All I Wanna Do” and “What About Love?” landed in sticky succession late in the show, one could think of the five-member group as something other than the signature power-ballad band of the late ‘80s. In the show’s best moments, Ann and Nancy Wilson went back to the aggressive brand of music they played in the 1970s to break mainstream hard-rock’s gender barrier. Actually, they went back to sounding like the female version of Led Zeppelin that they were in those early days.

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In the past, Ann Wilson tended to shrill and screech as she did her best approximation of Robert Plant. That was never a problem at the Pacific. Wilson has matured into a singer capable of tossing off high-reaching, melismatic cries without strain. Now all she needs is some material that risks a departure from formula.

Wilson was a likable, unpretentious front woman who made a point of taking a big whiff of the many bouquets fans pressed upon her during the show. In Heart’s videos, she is practically an incorporeal being, a big voice with an invisible, shrouded or barely glimpsed body. The reason for this, without a doubt, is that by MTV values, it is a sin to be heavy, as Wilson is. Tell it to Aretha Franklin and Etta James. For that matter, tell it to the fans at the Pacific, who sounded more than happy to appreciate Wilson as she is-- an active, emphatic presence. Heart’s management refused to allow news photographs of the band in concert, saying the no-photo rule is a blanket policy at all Heart shows. We can only guess why.

The Black Crowes, who opened, are among a wave of young rockers eager to cashier the Eddie Van Halen-inspired guitar squiggles and squalls that made so much ‘80s hard rock so boring and get back to some good, meaty Rolling Stones stuff.

But the Black Crowes are completely overshadowed by their sources. Singer Chris Robinson has an ordinary, grainy blues-inflected drawl that may qualify him as a solid roadhouse warrior, but not much more. The band’s material is ordinary, too.

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Robinson and dissipated-looking bassist Johnny Colt did their energetic best to emulate Mick Jagger and Keith Richards (or was it Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry?). The guitar work of Jeff Cease and Rich Robinson was spirited and suitably gritty (terrible spotlight work kept these two unflamboyant players in the dark while they soloed; the lights remained trained on the cavorting vocalist).

It all produced some good, cranking passages. Still, it’s hard for anyone versed in such Stones gems as “Sticky Fingers” and “Exile on Main Street” to get too excited about the Black Crowes’ sound-alike exercises. Orange County’s Pontiac Brothers, who broke up last year without having found the mass audience the Black Crowes reach, sounded just as Stones-like as the Crowes. But the Pontiacs’ songs were suffused with humor and a fresh, personal vision--the real key to rock excellence.


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