By Jacqueline Howell

Erika Wennerstrom, the formidable voice behind mid-2000s success story Heartless Bastards, has also embarked on a solo project under her own name. Touring in support of Drive-By Truckers, Wennerstrom brings music from her just released album, Sweet Unknown, to life on the stage of Toronto’s Mod Club, a two-level club venue that offers nothing but solid sight-lines, is barrier-free and is wonderfully intimate (in the best sense of the word).

One cannot hear the Heartless Bastards’ 2009 hit song “The Mountain” without it leaving an indelible impression. Released at a time of sparking diversity in the new century’s first decade, the radio was full of real musical voices playing real instruments again. There were buzzy amps and raucous guitars, androgynous-sounding singers from all over the world getting major attention, and a sense that the indie ethos was here to stay: for every band that produced scores of hand-clapping imitators, there was a burst of new ideas, new sounds and new moods created from places as unexpected but welcome as New Zealand  or Cincinnati. In other words, the flyover state was no more: the future was finally here.

While it’s uncomfortable to admit a nagging sense of longing for 2009, it’s authentic. Rapid-fire technology changes and digital distractions mean that since 2009, time has flown by, inviting us to altogether give up on the traditional way we ought to receive music and make it meaningful to our lives. 2009 music is still fresh, but so much noise, news and static can lead to a disconnect in the very real relationship needed for fans and artists. What’s important about real music made by real musicians, of singers as emotive and skilled and yet natural sounding as Wennerstrom, who can imbue “oooh”s and “whoa”s with as much truth as inside a biting line of poetry, is their out-of-time-ness and resistance to musical fads and trends. Real music has always risen above – not below – the commercial drag of its particular era. Heartless Bastards, across five solid albums, sounded fresh in the new Millennium because it was, at that moment. But it was really classic, timeless, for it was real music. The “new music” was – and still is – suspended somewhere in the realm of indie rock, garage rock and country rock – the genres that never give up their instruments and always keep us rooted to the earth. Keep us honest. Bring us back when dark forces dominate the charts. Speak to worldwide audiences on primal levels.

There is a full band supporting the solo material, a well-rounded sound that is full-bodied yet leaves more room for vocals and words to shine than perhaps the Heartless Bastards did when we saw them in Toronto some years ago. At that moment, vocals were regularly mixed a little low, full of cool ambiguity and mystery. Now, the clarity of voices is needed in this world, in a time where ambiguity colours every news headline. Our artists are still saving us from deafening, un-artful noise. Voices who can and will soar with clarity in the face of this are to be treasured.

Tonight, one of the most spectacular voices in rock music today (ever) sings a tight set including brand new songs “Twisted Highway” and the intimate “Extraordinary Love” which take on introspective, personal themes. Diehard fans of the Truckers on their double-digits in concerts nod approvingly and get into the music which is loud, irresistible and gently powerful. In between songs, as well, Wennerstrom reminds us to love ourselves (underscored with a song called “Be Good to Yourself”) and to consciously practice love: timeless, poignant messages that always feel more resonant coming from a lit stage and a trusted voice than the one inside our heads. We don’t ignore such messages when we are out listening to spectacular live music brought to our door. Instead, we cheer.

Erika Wennerstrom is currently on tour with Drive-By Truckers throughout the U.S.

Photo gallery by Dave MacIntyre