CONCORD, CALIF. — At various points during their 90 minutes or so onstage Friday night at the Concord Pavilion, the Wilson sisters of Heart referred to how long they’ve been around. Ann Wilson said they were going to “wander free through the decades.” Which they did. Only the trip included enough music made famous by other acts to make the evening uneven and a bit odd at times.
After a nasty split that kept the Seattle sisters estranged for three years, Ann and Nancy Wilson made up and hit the road this year. Their fans were ready for them. The Pavilion was packed to the point of vehicles being turned away from the parking lot, and spilling into suburban Concord. More than half the crowd was female, there to celebrate Rock and Roll Hall-of-Famers Heart and Joan Jett. Grandmothers took their grandaughters, middle-aged people broke out the old concert shirts. Everyone seemed primed for a big night.
They got an OK night. Joan Jett was Joan Jett, which is a sign that all is still right in the classic rock world. Heart? As main vocalist Ann said at one point “We are definitely here.”
That about summed it up.
For a prolific act that’s been around for 45 years, the volume of cover songs Heart played Friday was puzzling. They’ve always been good at rolling through the material of others, but very few fans were truly engaged with their version of “Your Move,” by Yes, which would have been better as a familar rest stop between rollicking Heart classics, but instead came four songs into a set that needed some life injected into it. Things got a little disjointed afterward, when they went into “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” for about a minute before shifting not so far into “Straight On,” which felt like a drink of classic rock water coming out of the cover song desert.
It was strange, again, when they went into Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” right afterward. It’s a great song, and they did a solid version of course, as Heart thrives on taking it down and letting their harmonies and Nancy Wilson’s acoustic guitar shine through. But, by that point, they’d played as many covers as originals, and it didn’t feel like a Heart show as much as it did a classic rock tribute gig in danger of being forced.
Relief came, of all places, from the band’s 1980s catalog, which was a commercial success but didn’t endear Heart to critics. Nevertheless, the sisters finally hit their stride with a spirited (and, strangely organic-sounding) “These Dreams,” the momentum of which took the band into “Dog and Butterfly,” showcasing the sisters’ effortless, gorgeous harmonies.
Just when they’d grabbed some momentum, things started tailing off again by the end of an OK “Little Queen.” There was a snapshot of the night’s inconsistency: Some people on the lawn, who’d picked up their gear and looked ready to exit, actually put their things back down once the band found some energy for “Even it Up.” And a toned-down and textured “What About Love” (’80s hits again!) gave Ann a chance to unleash her powerhouse vocals, to which the crowd responded with a big singalong. It was like watching an athlete give one final push heading into the home stretch, before falling back again.
And they did. Two songs later, the band went through the motions during “Crazy on You,” during which Ann seemed to sputter a bit by the end. After the standard brief break for the encore, Heart came back with … “Stairway to Heaven.”
Of course they did.
Granted, very few bands can do Zeppelin like Heart. Their version of “Stairway” at the Kennedy Center Honors earlier this decade brought Robert Plant to tears. But cover songs had already taken up so much of the night, it was almost comical by that point. It sounded fine, and the band carried momentum to another ’80s high point, “Alone,” during which Ann Wilson found her power and just about blew everyone’s hair back. They concluded with “Barracuda,” finishing the evening with just enough Heart to keep everyone happy.
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There was no such amibiquity with Joan Jett‘s hourlong opening set. Yes, she plays lots of covers, but Jett may not be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame without covers. Or her absolute coolness. She was clad in black, guitar slung low, and sounded like Joan Jett. Which is always good enough.
Jett ripped through “Victim of Circumstance,” “Cherry Bomb,” “Do You Wanna Touch Me,” “Bad Reputation,” “You Drive Me Wild” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Light of Day” like it was fresh rock and roll territory to be trampled and conquered. It’s difficult not to smile when the 60-year-old former Runaways guitarist shreds through a punk rock version of the Mary Tyler Moore theme (“Love is All Around”), breathes a bit through “Fresh Start” and then comes back huge for “I Love Rock and Roll,” which had the crowd on its feet and fired up. I’m positive I heard a woman telling the youngster next to her to “pump your fist with grandma.”
Clearly, Jett still taps into the joy of rock music like very few can. She had more than 12,000 people chanting the choruses of “Crimson & Clover” and “I Hate Myself For Loving You” until middle-aged throats were raw. Her cover of the Replacements “Androgynous” seemed to curtail things a bit—it’s not exactly a mainstream hit—but she did it with a twinkle in her eye, as if letting a few in on the joke. She ended her set with a Bay-Area-appropriate cover of Sly & the Family Stone’s “Everyday People.”
Americana and blues rock singer-songwriter Elle King opened the show with a short set that included her best-known songs like “Ex’s & Oh’s,” as well as—appropriately enough for the evening—a cover of Tom Petty’s “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.” The evening almost became a battle of covers and, if so, Jett ended up with the evening’s best moments. Heart had some difficulty shaking loose, it seemed, but then again, this tour is at least four decades in the making. Just having all that classic music on one stage was enough for one night.
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