Hollywood is notorious for being pretty merciless to aging talent — particularly if that talent happens to be a woman — and the music industry’s no different. A paramount question for any booker, promoter or audience member before a concert like last night’s at the newly christened Simmons Bank Arena tends to be: Do they still have it?
It’s a fair question, and one to weigh carefully when you decide whether to fork over a few dozen bucks for a concert ticket. If the answer is no, it’s not just dollars you’ve lost; your memory of a beloved musician may lose some its luster, too. Fortunately — albeit for a too-scant crowd of 5,821 attendees — the answer at Heart/Joan Jett’s Little Rock concert last night was yes. Maybe it was Jett’s long-sharpened road-dog skills or her devoted vegetarian diet, or whatever soothing tonic was in Ann Wilson’s ceramic coffee cup, but neither showed a shred of evidence of vocal atrophy, and both were surrounded by the kind of musicians and engineers who can make their music work in a stadium setting.
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You’ll have to look elsewhere for live photos, as neither Heart nor Joan Jett allowed local media photographers to shoot the concert. Even if we had ‘em, though, I’d wish they had audio; vocal stamina was the keynote of the evening. Jett, barely 61 and clearly still enjoying Virgo season, swaggered around in her signature black leather and high-as-hell platform boots, churning out versions of hits from her solo career and from her time with teen rock supergroup The Runaways that were polished and punchy, if not daring. Coaching the audience along with the responsive “yeah” sequence in “Do You Wanna Touch Me (Oh Yeah)” and with the titular chant in The Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb,” Jett channeled the same swashbuckling, ’60s-inspired sound that she built her name upon, with longtime sideman Kenny Laguna chiming in to offer his version of the last few decades’ events.
“Joan and I started the Blackhearts a long time ago,” Laguna said to the crowd last night, “and when we did, a lot of people thought it was off and wrong for a girl with electric guitar to lead a band of guys. The music industry thought our sound was out of style, and we couldn’t get a record deal. So we took our music and printed it up, and we sold it out of the back of our car. And then suddenly we had a hit, and everyone in the music business was our friend. And they were our friends ‘til we had a couple records that did bad. So we wrote a song about this, called “Fake Friends.”
“Fake Friends” was a single, but I didn’t know it. I doubt most in the audience knew the title track Bruce Springsteen evidently wrote for Joan Jett for a 1987 film called “Light of Day” (starring Jett with Michael J. Fox!), and we definitely didn’t know “Androgynous,” a didactic little 2006 number that sounded as if “Schoolhouse Rock” had commissioned a singsong lesson on gender fluidity. Even the folks waiting patiently for Ann and Nancy Time, though, shouted for “I Love Rock and Roll” and “I Hate Myself for Loving You,” and swayed to Jett’s unswervingly loyal interpretation of Tommy James and the Shondells’ “Crimson and Clover” and to her uptempo take on the theme from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
Jett strutted, she puffed out her spiky hair, she yowled, she played crunchy chords on a Gibson, and I was thankful all over again that a cassette tape single of “I Hate Myself for Loving You” had shown a pre-adolescent version of this reporter that there was more than one way to be a girl — that Debbie Gibson and a mermaid named Ariel weren’t the only options on the table.
Also, I’m pretty sure you’re not allowed to be in Joan Jett’s band unless you can perform with your guitar slung so that its body dangles somewhere in the vicinity of your kneecaps.
The crowd milling around upstairs may have been small, but they were fiercely dedicated — that is, if their T-shirt choices were an accurate barometer. Braving lines for $10 beers while opener Lucie Silvas wailed inside the arena were teenagers and boomers, fathers and daughters, and an overabundance of black tops with lace-up bustier-style drawstrings at the sternum. There were Heart-branded Nalgene bottles, there were high-dollar tees and, adjacent to those, a robustly equipped Planned Parenthood table with bumper stickers, temporary tattoos and a bowl full o’ condoms. (Stay safe, y’all.) What diversity there was in the age bracket was not mirrored elsewhere; my concert companion assured me she wasn’t the only person of color in the place, but I didn’t see a lot of evidence to the contrary.
When sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson took the stage with an outsized septet, it was a reunion several years in the making. The sibling duo, known for their power and panache as longtime rock queens “since the nineteen hundred and seventies,” as Ann put it onstage last night — became estranged in 2016 after Ann’s husband was arrested for assaulting one of Nancy’s children backstage, and this year’s “Love Alive” tour is a banner of the pair’s reconciliation. “Thank you for bringing your love here,” Nancy said. “We’re gonna love you right back.”
I’d seen Ann Wilson at the Arkansas State Fair in 2017 with her own touring band, and last night’s concert couldn’t have been more of a contrast with that set. Ann’s voice seems in better shape now than it was two years ago, and though I doubt anybody would bat an eye if the band took their high-sailing hits down a half step or two, they seemed to be performed in the original keys, with Ann delivering the less important phrases with staccato to preserve energy for all those big, soaring bits. She wore out paths from one end of the stage to the other in a neon pink headband, a satin-lined blazer and a set of ombre tights that faded from black down to fuchsia at the ankles, a sort of gypsy-meets-athleisure getup.
Nancy Wilson (yes, still a stone-cold fox) was deft as ever on electric and acoustic guitars, switching axes between nearly every song and proving to anyone who thinks the sisters are solely eye candy that she can fingerstyle the hell out of a string instrument. She’s a complete rock star and she dressed like it, outfitted from head to toe in a bombastic black suit with vibrantly colored moon and star cutouts and long fringe swaying from the waist.
As for this listener, I’d have been perfectly happy if they just played “Dreamboat Annie” start to finish, but hey, there are “Alone” fans to please, too, and the set stretched across decades. Keyboardist Dan Walker switched between accordion and keyboards, sometimes within the same song. There were tried-and-true versions of “Magic Man,” “Little Queen,” “Crazy On You,” “These Dreams,” “Even It Up,” “Dog and Butterfly” and others, liberally peppered with covers — Yes’ “I’ve Seen All Good People,” a gorgeously harmonic rendition of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer,” a mash-up of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” with Heart’s original “Straight On,” and the duo’s note-for-note interpretation of “Stairway to Heaven” featuring Ann on the flute that was, in my opinion, far better and more earnest than the Kennedy Center Honors performance for which the cover’s known.
For this listener’s taste, the Wilsons’ backing band could use perhaps one less guitar. I liked things best when they were sparse and crisp, as in the intro to “What About Love” and the dramatic piano prelude to encore number “Alone,” but hey, if you’re rolling down the highway with a gargantuan touring machine and playing to stadium crowds, I suppose you’ve got to make sure there’s not the slightest chance the sound will ever come across as thin.
An unexpected highlight of the night for this listener: a mystical, swirling, damn-near-symphonic rendition of Heart’s under heralded album closer “Mistral Wind.” There, if they’d had an entire orchestra behind them, it still wouldn’t have been too much.