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Split Lip Rayfield and The Heartless Bastards (Friday, February 25th, 2005, 400 Bar, Minneapolis)
The Heartless Bastards - Stairs and Elevators album cover

By Cyn Collins

The Heartless Bastards

The 400 Bar was crowded early Friday night with a diverse crowd. As I entered the club, I heard openers The Heartless Bastards playing heavy garage rock, with crunching guitars and tough vocals not yet distinguishable as female – they were low, and guttural.

I was excited to hear hard blues driven grunge rock like I haven’t heard for a while. And it was surprising to hear such strong tough vocals coming from a petite, no-frills front-woman, Erika Wennerstrom, as she tore it up Janis Joplin style. The 3 piece band is rounded out by Kevin Vaugn on drums and Mike Lamping on bass.

The Heartless Bastards play raw, strong rock and punk. All songs are written by vocalist Wennerstrom, who hails from Dayton, Ohio, and who tonight wore jeans a dark t, no makeup and long straight hair. No fuss. She is as straightforward and honest as she looks, her only adornment being her facial expressions as she sings from deep down, at times sounding like an old 1920’s blues woman from the South, maybe Big Mama Thornton.

Her vocals also accessed Joplin’s tough emotiveness and “I’m not going to take any shit” attitude, entirely lacking self-pity in spite of the troubles she’s singing about. Wennerstrom sounded equally inspired by Robert Plant, the Kinks, and early Patti Smith. Her guitar style referenced Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page, honoring blues and rock through the ages.

Throughout the set, Wennerstrom sang ferociously, snarled and occasionally crooned the heavy blues, punk, swamp rock and '70's Southern and classic rock to wild drum and bass rhythms, referencing Led Zepellin, the Kinks, Iggy and the Stooges, and the Ramones.

At times I also was reminded of Ohio friends the Black Keys (who they thank in the liner notes of their CD Stairs and Elevators) and of Sonic Youth.

Split Lip Rayfield - Image courtesy of High Road Touring

Split Lip Rayfield

We had over a half-hour break till Split Lip Rayfield got took the stage at 11:30. 400 Bar shows always seem to start on time but run consistently late, and coupled with the expensive drink prices, I’ve heard many a music fan say, “Great shows worth the price, but I had to wait so long and I spent too much on only one or two beers!”

I sensed a high level of anticipation in the crowd and knew that there was a big buzz about Split Lip Rayfield, a band that features guitarist Kirk Rundstrom, banjoist Eric Mardis, mando-player Wayne Gottstine, and bassist Jeff Eaton, (known as “Country Jeff,” inventor and master of the one-string gas tank bass.)

The gas tank bass was one of the main reasons I wanted to hear Split Lip Rayfield, besides hearing that they transcend ordinary bluegrass and border on punk and garage rock. They definitely didn’t disappoint in that regard. Rundstrom applied his punk attitude voraciously in the driving guitar rhythms with his fully tattooed arms. He managed to look both mean and ecstatic at the same time.

Wayne Gottstine played mando rapid-fire and more dominantly than many bands I’ve seen. I’ll bet he goes through many strings with his ferocious playing, offset somehow by a look of stoned boredom and calm. The banjo blended with and fought for dominance in the mix with the mando, and sometimes even won, as the four members took turns leading songs, yet not taking those obnoxiously flashy solos that are the standard bluegrass tradition. I appreciated that there were at least two or more musicians playing at all times and harmonizing on vocals. The vocals though, except for Country Jeff and Kirk Rundstrom, left something to be desired for someone like me who is accustomed to the wild and skilled harmonies of this band’s Kansas City neighbors, The Wilders. (A side note: if you like SLR, you’ll LOVE the Wilders. If you haven’t seen ‘em, go! They come around these parts during the summer and are us old-timey, Hank, Poole, Scruggs and Monroe lovin’ folks’ favorites.)

The highlight of a Split Lip Rayfield show is definitely Country Jeff and his kick-ass gas tank bass! Not only is it big, but also it puts out sound with the resonance desirable in gutbucket bass, often not acquired no matter what we try to do to that thing. He plucked that weed-wacker string and spanked that beast within an inch of its life. Frantic playing broke strings which he replaced so fast I didn’t even see it (just saw the string turn from orange to white) and I swore his unprotected-by-gloves-or-duct-tape (which must surely just get in the way) hands would be bloody and raw by the end of the short set. It is a spectacle you’ve got to see and hear to believe.

The women in the audience clambered to get a gander at cute Country Jeff, and the guys, mostly in billed farm caps, nodded their heads and moshed like people at rock shows. With ear-to-ear grins, the audience beamed at the band and at each other. This was definitely one of the rowdiest crowds I’ve seen in a while, and the floor was actually shaking from the foot-stomping and jumping.

I heard 20 songs in about half an hour! Only when they began to sound repetitious, as so oft happens in the world of bluegrass, did I move on to my next review assignment of the night, the George Harrison tribute, already underway at the Turf.

Cyn Collins is at