Katy Guillen and The Girls started the night off with an admirable energy, playing to an audience that slowly trickled around the bar and towards the stage as Guillen danced her left hand up and down the fretboard of her guitar with learned accuracy. This KC group’s sound is marked by a distinct mix of blues and roots rock alongside tinges of sweet country balladry. Rounded out by Claire Adams on bass and back up vocals, and Stephanie Williams on drums, Katy Guillen and The Girls provided swells of energy and captivating guitar riffs for an attentive and engaged crowd.
Opener Slothrust proved to be a fine touring partner for the Heartless Bastards. The Brooklyn-based three-piece is lead by guitarist Leah Wellbaum, whose slouchy coolness belies the jagged intensity of her lead guitar playing. The band’s songs featured lots of heavy guitars, which sometimes evoked Black Sabbath, and tempo and time signature changes that stopped and started on a dime. The band also had a quirky penchant for down-tempo ballads and country shuffles, making for an especially fractured, if sporadically exhilarating sound.
There’s something distinctly Midwestern in the Heartless Bastards’ music, a certain workmanlike quality that exudes charm and humility and resists needless excess or fussy embellishment. The group is now more than a decade old, and while their sound has evolved from the spiky garage rock of their debut, Stairs and Elevators, to a fuller, more assured sound on their latest release, 2015’s Restless Ones, their sturdiness and steady persistence has never wavered. The first time the group played The Bottleneck in Lawrence, an opening slot for the Drive-By Truckers in April 2005, they were a three-piece whose sound was often associated with their Fat Possum label mates, the Black Keys. Since then the group has released four studio albums, switched record labels, played hundreds of gigs, and made a particularly inspired appearance on the long-running television show Austin City Limits. On this night, it was quite apparent from the very beginning that the band is more seasoned and more self-possessed; their rock n’ roll is more varied and poised, more precise and coiled than it was at their 2005 Bottleneck debut.
In front of an audience of around 100, the group’s setlist tilted heavily towards material from Restless Ones. Songs like “Gates of Dawn,” “Black Cloud,” and “Hi-Line” proved that beneath Mark Nathan’s heavy guitars and front vocalist Erika Wennerstrom’s full-throated howls, the group has a real ear for catchy melodies, a feature of their music not always immediately apparent on their earlier releases.
There were also a lot more acoustic guitars at this show than at the 2005 gig, and even a jaunty piano on “Into the Light,” resulting in a richer, more encompassing sound. While the audience was small, it was also committed and attentive, allowing the band to slow things down on the desert folk ballad “The Arrow Killed the Beast” without losing too much momentum. The group ended their set with “Parted Ways” from their 2012 release Arrow, a song that featured the remarkable drumming of Dave Colvin who plays rock n’ roll drums with the precision, finesse, and swing of a jazz drummer. His barreling fills at the end of “Parted Ways” sounded like a more disciplined Keith Moon, and Jesse Ebaugh’s simple, fluid bass lines provided just enough space between notes for Colvin’s drumming to breathe and flourish.
By the encore, the clock was approaching 1am and the crowd had thinned to around 60-70, but those who left early missed the show’s finest moments, a beautiful, heavy song called “Sway” from the group’s 2009 release The Mountain. It is one of Wennerstrom’s most vulnerable songs, a searching, wandering narrative that only achieves a sense of balance and resolution in the chorus, which Wennerstrom announces with the lines, “these bitter days will end, you gotta, you just gotta let them go, just let go.” The songs deliberate pace and Wennerstrom’s unhurried riffing once again gave Colvin space to escalate the song to a thrilling, crashing conclusion. As the band left the stage, the monitors continued to sputter and hum as Wennerstrom ended the night alone onstage singing “Tristessa,” the track that closes Restless Ones. Her voice, so fierce and guttural all night, was now fully exposed, and the results were strangely affecting, haunting even. It was a goosebump-inducing conclusion to a thrilling night of rock n’ roll—a Midwest love letter from a well-traveled friend.