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Heart Strings : Ann, Nancy Wilson Get in Touch With Acoustic Roots at the Cerritos Center

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Heart is rarely noted as an influence on contemporary female rockers. Not like Chrissie Hynde or the Runaways. But back in the ‘70s, sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson at the band’s creative core were forcefully taking on Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith with a blend of hard rock and acoustic torch songs.

That was the legacy celebrated Friday night at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, where the Wilsons performed as an acoustic duo and largely ignored the soul-less ‘80s pop material that led them astray and blunted their potential influence. The focus was again on the raw folk at their roots.

The Wilsons opened the night with “Dog and Butterfly,” a lilting song from 1978 that had Nancy on a 12-string guitar and harmonizing softly with Ann’s piercing vocals. While older material from Heart’s first few albums clearly connected most deeply with the crowd, the Wilsons performed several new songs that seemed to expand their repertoire while bridging a gap with the ‘70s hits.

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“You are part of the research and development team,” Nancy told the crowd, as she stood on a stage regal and vaguely Goth, decorated with red and black velvet, rose bouquets and burning candles.

While Ann is often the focal point of Heart, Friday’s show divided time equally between the two sisters, with worthwhile results. Nancy Wilson, who released a live solo album earlier this year, provided many of the night’s most memorable moments, from the dynamic instrumental guitar introduction of “Crazy On You” to her ode to Seattle’s faded grunge movement, “Jimmy Cool Down,” blending dark rhythms and folksy strumming.

Her voice is not as sharp or distinctive as her sister’s, but is emotionally evocative just the same, singing of hopeful romance on “Everything.” But Nancy’s guitar was not nearly loud enough at the center, meaning that some of her best licks were lost beneath the crowd euphoria. It was at such times that a full band treatment was missed.

But just as frequently, the stripped-down acoustic arrangements of guitar or piano added a welcome emotional flavor. Even the performance of 1983’s “Love Mistake” demonstrated just how much those plastic ballads from the ‘80s could sound like the beloved ‘70s period when stripped of the gloss and sheen.

By the early ‘90s, the Wilsons had apparently become bored with what Heart had become, and embarked on a stylistic U-turn toward their early days. They established an acoustic-based side-project called the Lovemongers, freeing the Wilsons from worries about chart action.

As the Lovemongers, the Wilsons virtually took possession of Led Zeppelin’s “Battle of Nevermore,” turning it into an urgent signature tune. On Friday, the song was used as rousing finale.

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The 90-minute performance took some surprising turns, even sounding sparse and bluesy on a song called “Love or Madness,” which had Nancy blowing into a harmonica while Ann sang and played bass.

“This is about that moment,” Ann explained, “when you say ‘I’m in love! I’m in love! I’m in love! I’m insane! I’m insane! I’m insane!’ The line is blurry.”

The Wilsons found other inspiration by turning to other songwriters. “Nothing But Love” was a writing collaboration with Burt Bacharach, and its sophisticated melody was well suited to Ann’s voice.

A performance of John Lennon’s “Mother” was an inspired choice, though Ann’s vocals were not edgy enough to fully connect with the song’s tale of tragedy and abandonment. Despite her volume, she was singing when she should have been raging.

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