LIVE: Heart, Joan Jett & The Blackhearts, The Mandevilles
March 20, 2016
Sony Centre For The Performing Arts
Right about the time when Heart guitarist Nancy Wilson began winding her way through the acoustic intro to the classic rock ultra-hit “Crazy On You” my internal monologue was clicking away at a checklist:
Are Heart better than Aerosmith? Check.
Are Heart better than Lynyrd Skynyrd? Check.
Are Heart better than The Guess Who? Check.
Are Heart better than Fleetwood Mac? Check.
Are Heart better than Van Halen? Hmmm, those Van Halen and 1984 albums are pretty good…
The point is that Heart, the 40+ year running institution fronted by shattering-voiced Ann Wilson and her sister Nancy, aren’t just the biggest, best and most important band among the “women of rock” (a term I find loathsome for its pigeonholing need to classify musical acts not by whether or not they’re awesome at what they do, but by whether or not they have vaginas), they’re among the biggest, best and most important rock bands of all-times. Because, besides a few foundational pillars — The Rolling Stones, The Who, Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie — Heart are virtually unmatched.
Of course, none of this mental gamesmanship really mattered once long-time Heart guitarist Craig Bartock dove into the mind-altering “Crazy On You” riff that has propelled it to decades-long anchorings on classic rock radio station Top 100 song lists.
“Crazy On You” was just one wow moment in a series of wow moments from Heart during the Toronto touchdown of the Queens of Sheeba tour featuring the Wilson sisters and crew, Joan Jett & The Blackhearts and The Mandevilles at the Sony Centre. Kicking off their set with the throwdown of “Magic Man” and “Heartless,” the band quickly shifted gears to the uber-ballad “What About Love.” I used to hate this song when it first came out. At the time I was all about Motley Crue’s Shout At The Devil album and this song’s ubiquity (it made it to #3 on the Canadian Adult Contemporary Chart) and ballad-ness felt like a betrayal to the idealized badass rocker version of Heart my childish self had imagined. Decades later, though, the song’s hallelujah resonance is a lot clearer. There were people in the audience for whom this song was their church: hands up, all a-flutter, connecting with their higher power.
The rest of Heart’s set also had a number of lightning bolt moments. “Barracuda,” with its signature chug, was fist-pumpingly satisfying and the three-song cover set encores of “Immigrant Song,” a lysergic “No Quarter” and “Misty Mountain Hop” were, let’s face, probably the closest any of us with get to hearing these songs played by Led Zeppelin in 2016 or beyond.
Not lost on us this evening was the inclusion of equality-minded 1980 single “Even It Up” to the mid-section of Heart’s set. The song’s specific qualities were perhaps less important than its symbolic ones. This was, after all, a tour named after a biblical queen featuring three female-led rock acts.
Which brings us to the evening’s co-headliner, Joan Jett & The Blackhearts.
What Jett may lack in GOAT classic rock cache, she more than makes up for as one of the most iconic figures in rock ‘n’ roll history. Without Jett would riot grrrl have existed? Hole? Liz Phair? The Distillers? Yeah Yeah Yeahs? Maybe, but it’s very easy to imagine Jett as the person who cleared the path for future generations of badasses.
If Heart’s set was a masterclass of crescendoes and cloud-touching epiphanies, Jett’s was a tromp through New York City gutters with a switchblade in hand.
From the first moment of signature opener “Bad Reputation,” Jett had the derby girls and Bovine bartenders on their days off in the audience relentlessly hustling through the aisles in attempts to sneak closer to the stage. They had good reason for magnetically pulling towards the stage.
Jett’s time warps through Runaways hits “Cherry Bomb” and “You Drive Me Wild” were both vivid reminders of her icon status and the fact that she has, quite literally, been rocking out since she was a teenager.
Perhaps the most remarkable trait about Jett, though, is the way in which she’s inhabited other people’s songs over the years and made them her own. I don’t know anyone besides the most contrarian rockist who would choose The Arrows’ take on “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” over Jett’s world-winning version. Likewise, Tommy James & The Shondells’ “Crimson And Clover” will never match the steamy potency Jett brings to her take on the song.
If there were any missteps in Jett’s set they were tonal more than technical. Jett turned horrible-person Gary Glitter’s “Do You Wanna Touch Me (Oh Yeah)” into a hand-waving glam-rock singalong. As a song and as a moment it was great. Framed culturally, though, performing a song by Glitter, a convicted sexual predator, isn’t dangerous so much as it’s dangerously out of step with expectations we assign to someone as important as Jett. New song “TMI” might be a little too get-off-my-lawn with its condemnation of social media/selfie culture, as well.
Frankly, most of the Sony Centre audience didn’t care. It was, after all, more about loving rock ‘n’ roll than chin-stroking internal debates on the implied endorsement of reprehensible people by covering their songs.
Indeed, if Jett could distill the complexity of the human condition into the four perfect minutes of “I Hate Myself For Loving You” perhaps I’m putting too much thought into it. After all, Jett’s closing cover of Sly & The Family Stone’s “Everyday People” and its message of peace, racial and social equality is probably a much better takeaway from was ultimately a satisfyingly valiant set of rock ‘n’ roll.
Another sort of bravery was on display this night from opening act The Mandevilles. While promoters probably could have gotten anyone they wanted at a certain level to act as curtain jerker for the Sheeba tour, the choice of the Niagara Falls-based Mandevilles had symbolic value. Fronted by Southern Ontario scene veteran Serena Pryne, the inclusion of The Mandevilles was a nod to all the women of rock who are still fighting it out in the clubs. Pryne and her Bonnie Tyler-ian wail had the odds stacked against them, having to play acoustically to a slowly filling theatre, but by relentlessly pushing forward with “Windows And Stones,” the brassy “I Stole Your Band” and a spirited run through The Who’s “The Real Me” they held their own. And if the “hey, that wasn’t bad” proclamations from the cottage rock dads sitting behind me post-set were any indication, The Mandevilles should take their efforts this evening more as success than faint praise.