“Such a drama queen / A hot mess,” Ann Wilson snarls as sister Nancy Wilson furiously strums her guitar. For over 40 years, the Wilson sisters have formed the basis of Heart, and have shattered gender stereotypes. (In a past interview, Nancy Wilson recalled early male fans asking her how a “little girl” could play “such a big guitar.”) Ann Wilson possesses not only one of the best female rock voices, but one of the best rock voices, period. Long past their commercial 1980s era, the sisters now perform on their own terms, focusing on music and less on image.
That spirit is prominently displayed on the new DVD and Blu-ray Live at the Royal Albert Hall with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Performing for the first time at the venue as well as with a full orchestra, Heart treats the audience to a selection of their biggest hits, along with cuts from their latest album Beautiful Broken.
Filmed in June 2016, the concert shows a jubilant band obviously thrilled at the prospect of performing in such a storied venue. Longtime fans who frequently form the heart shape with their hands enthusiastically sing along to all their hits, and the Wilson sisters include a number of them. The show kicks off with a rousing rendition of “Magic Man,” with Ann’s voice sounding almost identical to the original recording Despite the number of times they must have played the track live, the duo frequently smile at one another, clearly enjoying the moment.
They bring out the folk influences in “Dreamboat Annie,” while thrilling the audience with a powerful rendition of “What About Love?” The Royal Philharmonic brings an emotional intensity to the 1980s cut, as the strings gradually increase in volume until reaching a musical climax at the end. Ann Wilson also demonstrates her remarkable range, starting off soft and contemplative and reaching a passionate intensity that the orchestra never overpowers.
Songs off of Beautiful Broken benefit from the live orchestral treatment, with the title track’s dark undertones made vivid by crunching guitars as well as Ann’s raspy voice When Ann introduces the song as being about troubled figures like Courtney Love, her anecdote brings additional weight to the song.
Another standout is “I Jump,” which can also be considered Heart’s tribute to one of their chief influences: Led Zeppelin. Further underscoring this point is their breathtaking cover of “No Quarter,” which enraptures the audience so thoroughly they make virtually no noise during the entire performance. Along with their acclaimed cover of “Stairway to Heaven” during the 2012 Kennedy Center Honors ceremony, this rendition proves that Heart remains one of the best interpreters of Led Zeppelin’s music.
Nancy Wilson gets lead turns as well, singing the ’80s hit “These Dreams” as well as the Beautiful Broken cut “Two.” While her voice isn’t as strong as Ann’s, it contains a fragile quality that fits the songs’ tender lyrics. Ann is capable of such tenderness as well, sincerely crooning “Sand,” a tribute for a departed friend.
Toward the end of the show, the Wilson sisters come roaring back with the audience-pleasing “Barracuda,” again sounding mostly unchanged from the original recording. Their final track, however, best sums up the night. “While you’re still alive, kick it out!” Ann screams as Nancy pounds the guitar strings. “Kick It Out” may date from 1977, but almost 40 years later it still encapsulates Hearts’ mission: entertaining audiences while smashing their expectations. As the Wilsons have proven over time, women can indeed rock.
Heart fans will enjoy Live at The Royal Albert Hall with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra for its celebration of the band’s legacy, and they will be astounded at the Wilson sisters’ continuing musical virtuosity and relevance.
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