Ann and Nancy Wilson, the sisters at the center of the Seattle-based band that kicked out such '70s hard-rock staples as "Magic Man" and "Crazy on You," have an odd relationship with the moniker of their group. "The Road Home," the last album credited to Heart, was released nearly five years ago. And the siblings -- lead vocalist Ann and guitarist Nancy -- since have split and reunited in several combinations, halfway loving their band name and then abruptly leaving it behind.
The Wilsons hooked up with several Seattle pals for the Lovemongers, an unplugged side project whose version of Led Zeppelin‘s "The Battle of Evermore" was heard on the soundtrack for 1992's "Singles" (directed and written by Nancy's husband, Cameron Crowe) and the Neil Young-assembled "The Bridge School Concerts, Vol. 1." The Lovemongers‘ four-track EP was followed by the full-length "Whirlygig" CD in 1997 and last year's "Here is Christmas" collection.
"Heart isn‘t some kind of holy, sacred relic or something," Ann told us in 1998, proving her point by embarking on a summer Heart tour without her sister (but with longtime band guitarist-keyboardist Howard Leese). Nancy put herself back in the spotlight this year with "Live at McCabe‘s," a solo album that had The New York Times praising her for blending "Joni Mitchell-style introspection with fervent singing and strumming indebted to Led Zeppelin."
The two natives have willfully clouded the issue a bit this summer by reuniting for a tour as ... Ann and Nancy Wilson. Why in the name of all that‘s holy to ticket sales don't the duo use the name they're best known by?
"If we go out under the name of Heart, people are gonna expect the big band, a big, loud, full-on rock band," Ann says from New York. "It kind of locks us into the past. While we‘re proud of our past, we do want to be allowed to move into the future. We‘re really not ready to do that old reunion thing. We‘re not ready to keep on glorifying yesteryear. We sort of feel like we're still unfolding. If people really think about it, though, with the two of us, they‘re gonna be seeing Heart. It 's the current incarnation of Heart."
This edition of Heart is considerably older and wiser than the one that crashed onto the scene with 1976's million-selling "Dreamboat Annie" and multiplatinum successors "Little Queen" (1977) and "Dog and Butterfly" (1978). Rock radio, perhaps surprisingly, put out the welcome mat for their instantly identifiable blend of female harmony vocals and giant guitar chords. The group's beginnings were well-detailed in a recent, popular segment of VH1's "Behind the Music" series.
"They laughed at us in the beginning, because when we first came out, not only were there no women in the rock field to speak of -- except for the Fleetwood Mac women -- but the kind of straight-ahead, openly emotional lyrics we were doing weren't in keeping with the (female-sung) disco of the time," Ann said. "It wasn't guys writing about sex. We succeeded just by sort of not knowing the rules and by crashing on in."
"It was a man's world," she added. "It was a real brotherhood. But Nancy and I were young enough so anything was possible to us. We didn't feel intimidated. But we felt frustrated. We weren't given much credibility at first. Nancy would have some terrible things said to her, like, "Wow, you‘re really good looking -- is that guitar really plugged in?" Backhanded compliments that would make you want to knock somebody's lights out."
Ann, for this tour, is playing bass, rhythm guitar, piano and flute, while Nancy is on electric and acoustic guitars, mandolin, dulcimer, dobro, harmonica, bass and piano. The laid-back approach may be a natural match for some Heart material, like that heard on 1995's acoustic-oriented "The Road Home." Ditto for the 18-song set's new material, including "Only You and I," a collaboration with Burt Bacharach slated for inclusion on the Wilsons' forthcoming new album. But it's tough to imagine other tunes, like "Barracuda," stripped to their basics.
"That‘s just one guitar and a tambourine, but it's still itself," Ann said. "To me, it doesn't seem to change that much. It does in the obvious ways. There's no bass, there's no big drum thing. It's not the big, galloping-metal-horse song that it is on the record. But it's got every bit of the angst that the other version has, maybe more because you can really check out the words, and you can feel the emotions behind the song. Sometimes they really fly at you in a way that you don't expect. They don't get wimpy. They still have that sting."