Heartless Bastards are the only band in the world that I have ever said are perfectly suited for a state fair… when it wasn’t intended as an insult. They seem to be from some other time and place… but that time and place are really amalgamations of scenes and aesthetics that rarely came into contact with one another… when, in retrospect, they seem like such obvious pairings. They seem to be most renowned for their take on traditional country and blues. However, they clearly make the connection between that and punk, something often overlooked by fans of each camp. Heartless Bastards seem to embrace the most earnest sounds of “low art” with more sincerity and less condescension than pretty much any other band in the world. Heartless Bastards seem to have a respectably great level of contempt for popular culture and our society of the spectacle. They have never seemed terribly concerned with winning over audiences… After all, if you’re there, you must already “get” it.
The last time Philthy (the city, not the publication) caught up with these Bastards was about a year and a half ago, when they were doing another round of dates for 2009’s brilliant The Mountain and they found themselves on the stage of the North Star Bar on a particularly sweaty Friday night in July. This past Valentine’s Day the band released their fourth LP, Arrow, and last Saturday found themselves at Philly’s latest musical hot-spot, Union Transfer, putting on a two-hour set of their brand of garage Americana. While their sets tend to be ineffably cool and inspiring, they’re not particularly entertaining… and I think that’s the point. Their live performances aren’t melodramatic and they don’t have frills, but they spill their hearts out all over the stage like few other bands. Their live shows aren’t modern. They don’t seem to attempt to evoke amusement. They are embodiments of an art form far more interested in expressing than impressing.
Their set was heavily bent on promoting their latest release, with the audience highlight seeming to be the album’s first single “Parted Ways.” While their new sound is far more stripped (more along the lines of traditional Southern Rock) than their previous effort, it did provide a number of the evening’s highlights. The epic “The Arrow That Killed the Beast” embodies a beauty that seems as if it could only stem from rural, working-class oppression (Somehow the quartet, originally hailing from Cincinnati, manage to fake it quite well.) and “Only For You” echoes of the most whimsical soul on a late night exploration through her own heart. However, the night’s greatest moments primarily came courtesy of The Mountain (which were generally saved for the end of the night), such as “Out at Sea,” and “Nothing Seems the Same,” the sound of Southern Psychedelica with a giant pair of brass balls and “Hold Your Head High,” the closest thing the band has to a ten-ton-truck of a ballad.
If the evening had a major flaw, it was simply the setting… the newly refurbished, former transportation hub, made to evoke awe of grand views. While it does sort of resemble a postmodern barn, it is far too glossy to house a band called “Heartless Bastards.” If there’s not an available state fair, where the band can mingle with the country’s most colourful characters, it should at least find its way to a cramped punk or Western club. When Heartless Bastards’ brilliant brand of grit has room to breathe, it does tend to lose a bit of its charm.