Preview: Newest Rock and Roll Hall of Famers arrive with edgy new album and Zeppelin-fueled tour
July 18, 2013 4:00 AM
Heart -- sisters Nancy, left, and Ann Wilson.
By Scott Mervis Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The talented Wilson sisters would have been unstoppable whether they were a rock group, a folk duo or even a polka band.
As it turned out, Ann and Nancy Wilson were driven by their rock influences leading up to their venture in Heart in the early '70s.
"Led Zeppelin and Elton John and The Beatles and Deep Purple and a few others," Ann says, rattling off their inspirations in a phone interview. "We were playing in clubs when we were first getting the band out, and back then nobody wanted to hear your own stuff. They wanted to hear what was being played on the radio. So they went to a club and they heard bands play radio cuts. So we would play Led Zeppelin songs and all those other songs. By doing that, I learned a lot about how to sing, how to play rock 'n' roll."
Heart, of course, went on to do great things with its own music, breaking out as one of the great hard rock bands of the '70s and enduring over four more decades. But the Led Zep covers that Heart played back in the clubs stuck with them throughout, and it's been common for Heart to drop one in an encore.
The culmination of Heart's Zeppelin worship took place at the Kennedy Center honors in December when the Wilsons brought Robert Plant to tears with their electrifying cover of "Stairway to Heaven," performed with a string section and gospel choir in front of the president and his wife. Nancy called it "a lifetime moment."
On drums that night was Jason Bonham -- 46-year-old son of late Led Zep drummer John Bonham -- who was part of the Zeppelin reunion in London in 2007. In dealing with the disappointment of the reunion not lasting, he formed the tribute band Jason Bonham's Led Zeppelin Experience. It opens for Heart on this Heartbreaker Tour, and members of the two bands combine for an encore set of Zep tunes.
"Jason is such an archivist," Ann says. "He knows what way Led Zeppelin's played each song at each gig. He's just got this complete Zeppelin brain, memory. So we're playing really a lot more Led Zeppelin than Heart would ordinarily play, but still, the songs are not copies. We're doing them our own way."
Of course, Heart has more on its plate, having released its 14th album, "Fanatic," in the fall. Far from a run-of-the-mill effort from a band past its prime, "Fanatic" is an aggressive hard-rock record with songs that have fit well alongside classics like "Barracuda" and "Crazy on You."
"I think it's our most evolved album," she says, "and it's got a lot of good ideas on it. A lot of new ideas on it."
The release coincided with the band's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in April, in which it was joined by members of fellow Seattle bands Alice in Chains, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam to play "Barracuda."
"It was a very surreal night and a big thrill," she says. "I thought it came at the perfect time. They talked about how long it took for us to be inducted, but to me the timing was perfect with our current album and us going on and on, with vitality. I think that's what made our induction meaningful. It was dream-like, to be honest."
Asked what band she would induct tomorrow if she had the chance, Ann says, "I think The Moody Blues ought to be in there. If Donovan Leitch is in there, why not The Moody Blues? They were a big band with mega-hits in their day, and they were a philosophic rock band."
She also mentions Deep Purple, saying, "I mean, 'Smoke on the Water.' "
For Ann, making it to the Hall of Fame and going this strong at their age (she is 63, Nancy is 59) has been all the more special having done this with her sister by her side.
"Every night I walk up on stage and stand next to her, I consider to be a blessing. There's nobody like her. She's an original. You know, the road is a rough, hard place and who knows how long she's going to want to do this. So every night we do it, it's wonderful."