The Heart of the Matter: Barracudas Untoothed

You'd never guess the Nordic reserve of Seattle's Scandinavian ghetto could give rise to one of the most happening clubs in town, but it's true. Nestled in a neighborhood best known for such obscure Epicurean delights as lefse, lutefisk and gjetost is the Backstage, the cozy 400-seat club where hometown heroes Heart (or at least the heart of Heart - Ann and Nancy Wilson plus Howard Leese) performed a week of experimental unplugged shows in August of 1994. Armed with acoustic guitars, the string and oboe section from the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, and more mandolins than a Celtic music store, Heart redefined material spanning 20 years for five consecutive SRO crowds, dazzling the audience with stunning renditions of "Dog & Butterfly," "Dreamboat Annie," "Mistral Wind," "Crazy On You," and the time-tested trump card, "Barracuda." Stripped down to acoustic bare-bones, the sweeping beauty and earthy strength of the tunes combined for an intoxicating performance.

The sets were highlighted by the presence of legendary Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones who signed on to record and produce the resulting live album, The Road Home. Jones spent most of the show inconspicuously conducting the strings from the side of the stage, but at one point Jones joined in on bass for the Zep classic "What Is And What Should Never Be." Given Heart's acoustic background, it's curious the group hasn't done an unplugged album earlier.

Nancy Wilson: We've always wanted to do one but stuff never befalls us in the right order at the right time. When we were with our previous management company, MTV asked about doing a show when they first started doing Unplugged. Our management, without asking us, refused them because at the time they thought it would hurt us. In terms of image, Heart weren't young looking or as perfect looking as Janet Jackson or Madonna type pop stars. We found all this out later when we talked with MTV and they said, "Too bad you never did Unplugged with us." And we said, "Well, you never asked." And they went, "Yes, we did." We were so pissed. After the '80s, MTV wouldn?t touch us with a ten-foot pole. So we missed our window of opportunity there. But who knows? Things right now are shifting around. How do the Love Mongers, a stripped down and often acoustic project, differ from Heart doing an acoustic album?

Wilson: It differs a lot. In the Love Mongers, it's extra personal. Plus, there's another girl in the band, Sue Ennis, and our friend Franky [Frank Cox], the lone male, so it's a different chemistry. It's living room rock. Ann and I got comfortable in that homey situation. It was really a perfect way for us to take away all of the makeup and anything fancy and make it - I hate to use the word - organic. The last couple years I've been really happy to get back to acoustic guitar, although my fingers hurt a lot more. We're working on a Love Mongers album right now in my home studio, so I'm doing a lot of acoustic and mandolin and electric. But yeah, I think I've had a second honeymoon with my acoustic.

Howard Leese: After rehearsing and doing this album, my fingers were sore for a month because I'm generally the electric guy and don't play that much acoustic. The rehearsals were ten-hour days playing a twelve-string or mandolin. I had two little parallel grooves in all of my fingers. By the end of the rehearsals I was starting to worry about playing the shows because my hands were really hurting. My fingertips were black [laughs]. I had the best calluses by the end, but the shows themselves were pretty painful. Some members of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra backed you up. How did the classical guys take to doing rock?

Leese: They were very skeptical at first, but after a week of being onstage with us, they were ready to go on the road. They wanted to party! [laughs] At first they didn't know if we knew what we were doing. After a month of rehearsals and seeing that the charts were happening and that we work really hard and have the same attention to detail equal to what they have in the symphony, they had a good amount of respect for us. When we were done, we were totally on the same level musically. Howard, you conducted the strings at one point during the show. Was that hard considering your non-classical background?

Leese: Very hard. I conducted "Crazy On You" because it?s done rubato, which means it has no beat. I usually play that part on the keyboard and watch Ann and change with her voice. So I had to figure out how to get the string guys to do that, and it was tricky because you're waving the baton in time and going along with the beat. I was following Ann and they were following me so there's this little chain. I had to be a little ahead, to anticipate just a tad so that when they come down on the beat, they weren't behind her. How great was it working with John Paul Jones?

Wilson: He's so fun to work with. He's a conscientious, hilarious, intelligent, and talented person. He's had some actual training which is a rare commodity in rock 'n' roll. He spent a week just writing string charts in his hotel and about a month with us all together, including rehearsals. He got the string section together and produced the album.

Leese: He came in and didn't even know a lot of our big famous songs. He never heard of them, which was great. He wasn't going, "Oh, this was number one internationally." To him it was like, "Here's these chords and this is the way it goes." He didn't care how big the songs were or not. When we were picking songs, that put everything on an equal level. That's how we decided to just play the songs that sounded good. Was it tough to decide which songs would work best in an acoustic setting?

Wilson: Really tough. We went through the entire Heart catalog and auditioned everything. I made a tape of my Top 100 [laughs], then tried to narrow it down to eighty-five. Then me and Jonesy were faxing lists and lists and I was sending him live versions and Love Monger versions of Heart songs to give him an idea of how it could be acoustically. It should have been a triple album if you ask me.

Leese: In rehearsals we did all kinds of interesting stuff. It was a really rich musical experience working with John Paul. We did some Brazilian salsa, samba music. John and I got into ancient Celtic mandolin versions of early Elizabethan songs. He knows all about that ancient English stuff. I'm glad we were rolling tape. Some of the best moments came in-between working on the Heart show. You did five shows back to back. Was it tough, knowing you had to perform as well as record?

Leese: The hard part about doing a deal like this is that there's a line between performing for the audience in the club and performing for the microphone on the tape machine. It's tricky because we had pickups on our guitars and microphones all over the stage. So we had to stay real still so that your mic sounds fine. As far as live acoustic I think the sounds are pretty good, and that's a real difficult thing to record.

Wilson: It was hot, though. It was a hundred and twenty degrees in The Backstage. Thank God for their big walk-in refrigerator. We spent some time in that fridge. But playing those five nights was like rolling off a log. It?s a shame we didn't do it in a theater because then we would have had a little bit more control over the audience sounds. I think it was the only time in the history of this band that we had to ask an audience to be slightly quiet. That isn't supposed to happen in rock [laughs]. Not intentionally, anyway.

Wilson: I think when you strip away all of the layers of power chord hell, putting Ann in that framework, it's the first time on a Heart album ever that you can really appreciate her instrument.

Leese: She is so good, it's ridiculous. Except for Nancy, I've heard her sing more than anybody else, and I tell you what, she's the best white rock 'n' roll female singer ever. I don't think anybody even comes close. She never holds back, even at soundchecks or rehearsals or even if we're doing a song 150 times. She doesn't know how to take it easy. We had to have her stay home for the last couple of rehearsals for the shows because she wouldn't sing softly. That was the cool thing about doing the acoustic shows. You strip away a lot of stuff and you can really hear her voice.

Wilson: Being that close to each other and to the people in the club, it turns into a personal thing and not a technique thing. Now we're spoiled, we've tasted the forbidden fruit [laughs]. Bananas will never taste the same again. 

Just can't get enough? Check out...