Sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson have helmed Heart for more than four decades, almost entirely responsible for the group’s success through more personnel and stylistic changes than the average fan could even keep track of. They’ve managed to reinvent themselves time and again, cementing themselves as integral Seattle icons in the ’90s through their Lovemongers side project and Bad Animals recording studio, and they’ve survived plenty of non-musical drama in the years since, emerging from their first significant hiatus since the ’90s for the current Love Alive tour, which swung through Milwaukee Saturday night at the Fiserv Forum. At this stage, all anyone could expect was a competent nostalgia trip; what everyone got was a lot more than that.
Special guests Joan Jett And The Blackhearts took the stage to a nagging sound issue; although we could hear Jett’s guitar clearly in the audience, it apparently didn’t sound good at all to her. Through the first few songs, Jett and the stage crew swapped cords and frustrated gestures trying to fix the problem. Following the Runaways hit “Cherry Bomb,” Kenny Laguna, Jett’s manager/producer who may or may not have been contributing to the music from his perch at the rear of the stage, decided to start his awkward pitch for the Bad Reputation documentary early, which only seemed to aggravate Jett further. She picked up her replacement guitar to play “Bad Reputation” but quickly abandoned it again, stalking the front of the stage defiantly. The technical issues were more frustrating for her than for the crowd; the energy barely flagged for the remainder of her set, and eventually she returned to playing guitar, whether resigned or satisfied.
Highlights of Jett’s set included covers of “Crimson And Clover,” “Androgynous,” “Everyday People,” and naturally, the theme from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Mostly culled from decades past, the setlist did feature a few more recent tunes, including “Fragile,” a track from the 2013 album Unvarnished that sounded both vintage and fresh. With nothing in the world left to prove, Jett still exudes an authentic punk-rock energy that modern bands can’t even hope to imitate.
For their headlining set, Heart left their 21st-century catalog alone. The band could probably fill an hour and a half with nothing but hits; instead, they pulled out plenty of deeper album cuts and unveiled fresh arrangements of many of their most well-known songs. “Rockin’ Heaven Down,” from 1980’s virtually forgotten Bébé le Strange album, opened the show, a reminder that Heart was one of about three total arena-rock acts to survive the punk explosion commercially and artistically intact.
Considering the fact that the ’80s were Heart’s most commercially successful decade, the Wilsons shied away from this glam-makeover period, only playing three of their big power ballads from that era: “These Dreams,” “What About Love,” and a stripped-down version of “Alone” that laid bare how remarkably well Ann’s voice has held up all these years. It was a bona fide magic act, or else proof that whatever version of the rock-n-roll lifestyle Wilson leads does indeed keep a person young.
The show was heavy on Heart’s proggy roots, and featured some surprising nods to their various influences, including a take on the main portion of Yes’ “I’ve Seen All Good People” that rivaled what any iteration of that band could pull off; a gorgeous rendition of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer;” and a partial funky jam of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” that segued stunningly into Heart’s own “Straight On.” While there were no Jethro Tull covers, Ann pulled out her flute a couple of times, and keyboardist Dan Walker’s extended Moog solo in “Magic Man” heightened the trippy ’70s atmosphere. Perhaps the biggest treat for diehard fans was the penultimate song of the main set, “Mistral Wind,” from 1978’s Dog & Butterfly, a dark, creepy epic that sounded like a blueprint for modern prog-metal as much as anything from the Black Sabbath catalog.
True to form, the encore wouldn’t be complete without a Led Zeppelin cover, and for this tour, it’s “Stairway To Heaven.” There’s probably no other band past or present that could even do this cover justice, and seeing the two sisters tackle the first couple verses alone, note-perfect, was an uncommon treat. In most cases, if you go see a band of ’70s rock stars live nowadays, you hope to walk away and tell your friends, “If you want to cross them off your bucket list, it’s still worth it.” In the case of Heart, there’s no need for qualifiers; if you ever liked the band, or even if you just like rock and roll, you have no reason not to see them.