BY DANIEL GLUSKOTER
Confined to the role of being an opening act for fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Famer’s Cheap Trick on this evening, Ann Wilson still managed to rock the house Saturday night at the Saratoga Mountain Winery with an epic setlist of Classic Rock covers inspired by the recent passings of so many of the genre’s greats.
It was last year’s death of Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, a colleague from the Seattle music scene, that provided the creative spark that convinced Wilson to dedicate a complete album to the likes of David Bowie, Tom Petty, Glenn Frey, Leonard Cohen and Amy Winehouse, just to name a few.
The resulting project, “Immortal,” was just released a week ago. Returning to the Bay Area 18 months after a spectacular performance in Berkeley, Wilson continues to fly solo from sister Nancy Wilson and Heart, although reports seem to indicate that they’ve put their differences behind them and that working together again in the future is a realistic possibility.
“Immortal” is at times a stunning release. The opening track, Lesley Gore’s 1963 “You Don’t Own Me,” is a tale of female empowerment that predated the “Me-Too” movement by over half a century. Wilson’s haunting cover is indicative of her incredible vocal range, while the re-working of both that and many of the other tracks are truly refreshing.
Another beauty of the project is that she went out of her way to find lesser known obscure cuts in most cases, rather than choosing better known material. Bowie’s “I’m Afraid of Americans” is a perfect example. While not in the setlist Saturday night, it’s selection for the album gave Wilson an opportunity to put her own stamp on a lively track by The Thin White Duke that many had not heard before.
Long a Led Zeppelin aficionado with Heart, Wilson seems to be leaning more in the direction of The Who with her solo outings. Opening up with “The Real Me” from “Quadrophenia,” she wasted little time before delivering Heart’s signature “Barracuda.” It would be one of only two tracks from the band she’s fronted for over 40 years on this evening. “Fool No More” from the first of her two “Ann Wilson Thing” cover EP’s would follow.
Yes’ “Your Move” from 1971’s “The Yes Album,” a relative newcomer to her repertoire, would set the stage for a five song mini-set of tracks from the new release that would occupy the middle of the show. Easing into storyteller mode with her introductions to each of the newly released cuts, Wilson detailed the genesis of the project prior to launching into it with Cornell’s “I Am the Highway” from Audioslave’s eponymous 2002 debut studio album that saw her strap on a guitar for the first time.
Out of all the incredible material in the songbook of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, the track “Luna” from their 1976 self-titled debut is not likely to stand out. But Wilson was able to showcase the beauty of the eerie song with lines about stars and clouds in the sky just as a nearly full harvest moon rose over the south sky above the stage.
After “You Don’t Own Me,” the lead single from “Immortal,” she gave a heartfelt introduction to Winehouse’s “Back to Black.” Explaining how she first learned of the immensely talented Brit who died of alcohol poisoning at the age of 27 from her daughter, Wilson expressed how she was in so far over her head from the unrealistic expectations that her skyrocketing fame placed on her young psyche.
Describing how finding a more anonymous Eagles song was providing a challenge, she selected “Life in the Fast Lane” to honor Frey. An unmistakable song about excesses, the “Hotel California” cut is easily the most recognizable song on the album.
Returning again to the Daltrey-Townshend songbook that she would both open and close the night with, the 68 year Wilson would leave no doubt that her powerhouse vocals have lost little over the years with a blistering delivery of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” as she mimicked Daltrey’s signature microphone twirling to finish her set and an encore featuring the Heart ballad “Alone” sandwiched between her ultimate finale, The Who’s “Love, Reign O’er Me.”
Seeing and hearing Wilson’s takes on the material of so many of her contemporaries over the past few years has been a joy to experience. It certainly blows away Rod Stewart rehashing The Great America Songbook yet again. Hopefully it will be further documented in video format. One can also hope that the Wilson sisters will both be able to overcome their differences and find the creativity to reunite Heart and produce even more beautiful music together in the future.
Cheap Trick, the headliner on this evening , wasted little time validating their 2016 induction into the Rock Hall. While not touring in support of a new album, the band provided stellar performances of many of their best and most recognizable hits that easily validated their enshrinement and continue to keep them a fan favorite.
Playing a raucous set that included fan favorites such as “California Man,” “Southern Girls” and “If You Want My Love” early on, the core of vocalist Robin Zander, guitarist Rick Nielsen and bassist Tom Petersson continue to electrify crowds four decades into their career. It only got better as the middle of their setlist would include “On Top of the World,” “Ain’t That a Shame,” and a delicious Petersson-led version of The Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting for the Man.”
Amazingly their only number one single, “The Flame,” a ballad from 1988’s “Lap of Luxury,” brought the evening into the home stretch. The band finished strong, closing out with “I Want You to Want Me,” “Dream Police,” “Surrender” and “Goodnight Now,” their customary finale.
It’s been rumored that Cheap Trick is working on a new studio album, their first since 2017’s “We’re All Alright” for release early next year.