Don't let the name fool you. The music of the Heartless Bastards burns with feeling and emotion. The power trio from Austin (via Cincinnati) blasts out blue-collar country rock that pits love and hate in an arena of static-filled guitars, blasting percussion and singer-songwriter Erika Wennerstrom's Janis Joplin-style moans. The band's third full-length record, The Mountain, due out February 3, might be its most intense yet.
"It's about starting over," says Wennerstrom via phone. "My boyfriend and I split from a 10-year relationship and I moved to Austin. I changed everything. I packed up my van and moved on." That boyfriend was Bastards ex-bassist Mike Lamping. So Wennerstrom broke up the original trio, headed for Texas, rented a cheap apartment and wrote for six months alone, spawning the 11-song set. Ballads range from lonesome travel anthems like "Be So Happy" to cathartic rockers like "Out at Sea," backed by new instrumentation like pedal steel, mandolin, banjo and strings. Produced by Mike McCarthy (Spoon, Trail of Dead), it sounds like PJ Harvey recording alt-country in the bayou. "I've never worked with a producer," says Wennerstrom, "and I was working with musicians I just met, so I didn't want to create in this sterile environment, trying to make music with people you don't know at all. It's important to feel this connection, but I trusted [McCarthy] and now I feel this is my strongest work yet." Wennerstrom is touring with two "new" Heartless Bastards - drummer Dave Colvin and bassist/banjo player Jesse Ebaugh, Cincinnati-ites who played with early versions of the band. "It's a new energy," she says. "But I'll leave it up to people who are already familiar with the Heartless Bastards. Let's see what they think of the live show." Beaten Awake and Suede Brothers open up at 9 p.m. at the Beachland Ballroom (15711 Waterloo Rd., 216.383.1124). Tickets: $10 advance, $12 at the door. - Keith Gribbins
Not many gospel singers have what it takes to entertain a jazz-club audience. Most are too involved with the spiritual side of the music to understand that the audience isn't sitting there in hopes of getting saved. A rare exception to this rule is Cleveland singer-songwriter Kelly Chapman, who quit her day job half a decade ago to pursue a career as a vocalist. Her music, as heard on the self-released Real, reaches beyond the confines of church music. Take the danceable "Shake the Devil Off," which wouldn't sound out of place if a DJ decided to spin it to late-night revelers. Though she doesn't quite hit the spot every time (the spoken-word interlude "It Ain't Too Heavy" is one of the disc's weaker moments), her voice has an impressive range and she uses those capacities to the fullest, especially on more spiritual tunes like "Heal Me." For her show at Nighttown (12387 Cedar Rd., 216.795.0550), saxophonist Ken LeeGrand, pianist Dave Thomas, bassist Glenn Holmes and drummer Bill Ransom will back her. It starts at 8 p.m.; tickets are $25. - Ernest Barteldes
Remember the 1990s ska revival? So does Michigan's Mustard Plug, a band that, despite the cash-ins and disintegration of their peers, remains an independent act after 17 years and counting. Their sixth album, last year's In Black and White, was surprisingly interesting, if a little dark, and is a testament to the band's endurance. It's amazing how ska bands manage to write happy-sounding songs with bleak lyrics. Mustard Plug is no exception. "Think of every person that has walked into the door/Think of every tear that was shed upon the floor/Every baby's cry answered, every lover's sigh met/And I know, yes I know, there was life inside it yet/I ask you; Who benefits?" intones singer Dave Kirchgessner on "Who Benefits?" Damn punk kids never grow up. Earlier this year, Mustard Plug headlined Skanksgiving, the latest event organized by the people behind the appropriately titled Ska Is Dead Tour. Deals Gone Bad, Dan Potthast, Karkadens, the Distractions and the Episodes open at 6:30 p.m. at the Agora Ballroom (5000 Euclid Ave., 216.881.2221). Tickets: $11 advance, $13 day of show. - Nick DeMarino
Cleveland has always been a critical stop on the locomotive holiday tour of Trans-Siberian Orchestra. The symphonic-rock ensemble has scheduled four festive performances over two days at the Q (One Center Court, 216.241.5555) - the most on any of its tour stops. They will bring 14 vocalists, 14 musicians and two narrators to the elaborate stage show, creating prog-rock collages of holiday standards mixed with classical renditions and some popular covers like Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song." It's one of the biggest and most profitable arena-rock attractions in music today, utilizing an explosive spectacle of pyrotechnics, lasers and a synchronized light show that attracts devoted followers across all demographics - from grandmas to metalheads. The band, headed by producer/composer Paul O'Neill and his buddies from Florida's classic heavy-metal mob Savatage, has several releases to draw from - from 1996's Christmas Eve and Other Stories to 2004's The Lost Christmas Eve. TSO has been working on their non-Christmas album Nightcastle since 2005. It's scheduled for a spring 2009 release and features songs they've played live, like "O Fortuna" from Carl Orff's Carmina Burana. Onstage the band compensates by reusing old music to tell new stories. The famous "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24" uses an instrumental medley of "Carol of the Bells" and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" to tell the story of a lone cello player playing a Christmas carol in war-torn Sarajevo. Each story contributes to a two-and-half-hour bombastic rock opera fit for Broadway. And with ticket prices ranging from $37 and $47, it's great art at a cheap price. Shows are at 3 and 8 p.m. today and tomorrow. - Gribbins
Even though singer-keyboardist Joe McBride's music is generally labeled "smooth jazz," he expands the genre, taking the music into different directions, thanks to his early R&B, Motown and funk influences. He combines these with the sounds he picked up during his years in the Texas jazz scene, which absorbs elements of Chicago blues, Louisiana zydeco, and Southern funk and gospel. Blinded in the late '70s by a degenerative disease, McBride began his musical studies in his native St. Louis, then left for San Diego in 1983. As he began to establish himself on the West Coast, he traveled to Dallas for what was intended to be a two-week visit. But the welcome he got convinced him to settle there for two decades, until he relocated to Cleveland Heights in 2005. At his gigs, you might hear some South African and Brazilian sounds blended in for good measure - McBride isn't the kind of player who shies away from experimentation. For his appearance at Nighttown (12387 Cedar Rd., 216.795.0550), former Ray Charles bassist Roger Hines and local drummer Elijah Gilmore, who also has a CD in the works for 2009, will back McBride. The show starts at 7 p.m. and tickets are $20. - Barteldes
Since moving to New York to further his jazz studies at the prestigious Juilliard School, Cleveland-raised trumpeter Dominick Farinacci returns home fresh from having signed with record label Koch. But he's already released six CDs in Japan, where he has garnered a respectable following in spite of prices there: Cover charges in Tokyo jazz clubs are routinely $100 a head without so much as a complimentary drink. On his upcoming CD, Lovers, Tales and Dances, Farinacci shares the spotlight with legendary players like pianist Kenny Barron, bassist Marc Johnson, saxophonist Joe Lovano and vibist Joe Locke, among others. In spite of his age (he's only 25), Farinacci doesn't go in an experimental direction like many younger jazz players in the Big Apple. Instead, he follows a more traditional direction, an approach that has earned him the respect of musicians like Wynton Marsalis, who discovered him in Cleveland a decade ago. Marsalis has since mentored Farinacci, inviting him to appear at Jazz at Lincoln Center on a number of occasions. For his New Year's shows at Nighttown (12378 Cedar Rd., 216.795.0550), he'll play with his regular New York-based quartet, performing music from the new record and compositions from around the globe that have inspired him. Shows are at 8 and 10 p.m.; tickets are $20.- Barteldes
It's been decades since Muddy and the Wolf worked the bars, but Chicago remains a mecca for blues devotees. And while it may have been college that brought Liz Mandeville to Big Windy, the blues is likely why she remains. Already a well-traveled artist when she arrived in the '90s, the singer/guitarist/songwriter established herself as a mainstay of the city's blues scene. A capable player and savvy song crafter, the diminutive Mandeville makes her biggest mark as a vocalist, balancing old-school blues-mama power with a sophisticated sense of underplay. The most potent weapon in Mandeville's vocal arsenal is control. Circling the nether regions of her sultry feline tenor is shout potential of Joplinesque proportions, ready to pounce at the slightest push. Mandeville shows it just enough to keep an engaging tension ever present in her delivery. She could go off at any second but picks those moments shrewdly. Mandeville's pipes are in service of consistently ear-catching lyrics on her fourth solo album Red Top. As a songsmith, she finds much in the contemporary world that conjures up the same old blues. Both light- and heavy-hearted observations are done here with skill and style. Her solid work on the disc strongly suggests there's even more goin' on when she hits the stage. The show starts at 8:30 p.m. at Fat Fish Blue (21 Prospect Ave., 216.875.6000). Tickets: $54.99; price includes four-course dinner. - Duane Verh
Jason and the Scorchers
Pioneers of the '80s cowpunk scene, Jason and the Scorchers blazed their way out of Nashville, concocting a potent musical cocktail that blends Hank Williams twang with punk-drunk rock 'n' roll. Besides serving up fierce tracks like "White Lies," "Hot Nights in Georgia" and "Help There's a Fire," they're probably best remembered for their dynamic live shows (my ears still ring recalling a Scorchers/Georgia Satellites double bill). In fact, last year they received a Lifetime Achievement Award in Performance from the Americana Music Association. Tonight's a rare treat, since they don't tour much anymore. Anchoring the band (as usual) are singer-songwriter Jason Ringenberger and guitar whiz Warner Hodges - a rustic Jagger/Richards combo. And one-time Clevelander Stacie Collins will be belting out some tunes with the band, since her husband Al is their bassist. Ringenberger says, "The band is doing its best shows in years" - which is really saying something. His solo career lately has taken a surprising turn to family music as Farmer Jason, and he'll be doing an all-ages matinee at 3 p.m. Doors for the evening show open at 8 at the Beachland Ballroom (15711 Waterloo Rd., 216.383.1124). The Whiskey Daredevils open. Tickets are $25. - Michael Berick
Cleveland Jazz Project
Absent from the Cleveland music scene since summer, when the quartet's members were last freed from their college studies, the Cleveland Jazz Project reunites to start the jazz new year off on good footing. The Project lays out adventurous post-bop with aspirations toward the sublimity and crescendo power of the music John Coltrane made with his quartet in the early '60s. And indeed, the Project's 2008 self-produced album Experiment #1 fits in well with the mid-20th-century exploits of Coltrane and his avant brethren. Having met and formed their group while students at Cleveland Heights High, the Project's members showed in their naming not only a confident ownership of their city and its advancement of modern jazz, but, as a "project," signaled that their exercise might be sporadic and/or fleeting. With any luck, these guys will regroup in their hometown for years to come. But you might want to catch their developing musical ideas before bigger commitments stretch them to separate corners of the globe. Joining core members Nathan Davis (alto sax), Jacob Bergson (piano) and James Muschler (drums) will be Wenzl McGowen (tenor sax) and Nick Jozwiak (bass). The first set starts at 8 p.m. at Nighttown (12387 Cedar Road, 216.795.0550). Tickets: $10. - Matt Marshall
We're torn on Lil Wayne's Tha Carter III. It's a great album - no doubt about it. But after two years' worth of free online mixtapes (our last count: 5,794), Wayne's latest opus comes off more like a slightly enthusiastic shrug than a genre-revolutionizing masterwork. Still, dude's the busiest, most inspired and mind-fuckingly weirdest rapper in the game. His guest appearances alone stack up as some of 2008's best: Usher's "Love in This Club, Part II," T-Pain's "Can't Believe It" and especially "Swagga Like Us," the year's top hip-hop summit, featuring T.I., Jay-Z and Kanye West. Hard to tell exactly what he'll pull out onstage. Carter III's best cut "A Milli" is guaranteed; other than that, it's wherever Wayne's sizzurp-addled mind wants to take him. T-Pain and Gym Class Heroes are also on board for this tour, so expect plenty of Auto-Tune love calls and whatever they're calling rap-rock these days. Lil Wayne, T-Pain, Gym Class Heroes, Keyshia Cole and Keri Hilson play Quicken Loans Arena (One Center Ct.; 216.241.5555) at 7 p.m. Tickets: $39.75-$129.75. - Michael Gallucci
AC/DC knows what its fans want. And while most folks probably would like to hear a couple of songs from the band's new Black Ice album in concert, it's classics like "Highway to Hell," "Back in Black" and "You Shook Me All Night Long" that they're really going for. No worries: The guys have got you covered. They'll play a few cuts from the new CD (including the powerhouse single "Rock 'N Roll Train") when the Black Ice Tour comes to town, but recent shows have been stuffed with the same songs you've been getting drunk to since high school. And the thing is, unlike other bands that have had to adjust song arrangements over the years to accommodate their aging members (hello, Rolling Stones!), AC/DC sounds exactly like they did a quarter century ago. That makes "Let There Be Rock" and "For Those About to Rock" just as vital onstage today as they were back in the day. Factor in two or three songs from the group's best album in 25 years, and you've got a hell of a way to start the new year. AC/DC plays Quicken Loans Arena (One Center Ct.; 216.241.5555) at 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $91.50. - Gallucci
In the 1990 rock parody Cry-Baby, Johnny Depp plays rebel rocker Wade Walker. But director John Waters didn't allow Depp to actually sing in the film. That job went to rockabilly revivalist James Intveld, who at the time was still trying to get into the music business. That experience, at least initially, didn't do much for him (or for Depp, who was trying to get rid of his 21 Jump Street image). His real break would come after he was invited to contribute music to an album celebrating the 20th anniversary of an L.A.-based indie label. The tune he recorded ("Barely Hangin' On") caught the interest of the company's executives, who invited him to cut a full disc. Intveld is currently on the road promoting his latest release, Have Faith. When not touring, he's an in-demand studio musician for his skills on the lap steel guitar, bass and drums (he's recorded with Dwight Yoakum and the Blasters, among others). In the spare time he manages to find, he dabbles in acting and directing: He recently appeared in a George Strait music video and directed the 2005 film Miracle at Sage Creek. Hayshaker Jones opens at 9 p.m. at the Beachland Tavern (15711 Waterloo Rd., 216.383.1124). Tickets: $12. - Barteldes
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