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Heartless Bastards' bluesy, grungy guitars back a vocally arresting front woman

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Heartless Bastards with Sherree Chaimberlain and Little League Hero
10 p.m. Thursday
51St Street Speakeasy
1114 N.W. 51St
www.myspace.com/51Speakeasy
463-0470
$17 advance, $20 door

Everyone has stuff they just can't part with. For Erika Wennerstrom, it's a name.

Through two incarnations and three albums of blues-meets-rock, she has clung to a title derived from a trivia card in a bar and sewed it back together after breakups and big moves. But with the success of the current foursome and the latest album, last year's "The Mountain," Heartless Bastards is a name that's served the front woman and her band well.

The current lineup features Wennerstrom as singer, songwriter and guitarist; drummer Dave Colvin; bassist Jesse Ebaugh; and guitarist Mark Nathan. Together, they meld heavy, almost grungy guitar work, prolific beats and Wennerstrom's golden vocals with a banjo, some mandolin, and a little steel guitar " just for good measure. The result is a bluesy sound led by a swaggering, soulful voice.

Currently hailing from Austin, Texas, the band's roots stem from Dayton, Ohio, where as a fledging songstress, Wennerstrom would sneak into clubs to hear rock acts.

"Guided by Voices, The Breeders and Brainiac were all doing really well at the time," she said. "I've always been drawn to music. I've wanted to sing since I was like 3 or so. I went to those rock clubs because I was already drawn to the music, and I think seeing a lot of great bands doing really well from Dayton at the time probably helped me see that my goals could be a reality."

Fast-forward to 2003, and that reality was starting to shape up nicely for her. Kevin Vaughn was behind the drums, and Mike Lamping was the bass player " and Wennerstrom's beau. The trio was discovered after The Black Keys' Patrick Carney caught the last half of a set played to an audience of about five.

He helped sign the group to Fat Possum Records, and in 2005, the Heartless Bastards released their debut album, "Stairs and Elevators," to rave reviews. Listeners were arrested by Wennerstrom's vocal work, comparing her pipes to that of a rock goddess, but she remains more than a little modest: "It's always nice to hear that somebody is digging what I'm doing."

The band released one more album, 2006's "All This Time," before splitting, in more ways than one. Lamping and Wennerstrom broke off their relationship, and in late 2007, she packed up her belongings and her beloved band name, and hightailed it to Texas.

"It was hard starting over in Austin," she said, "but I had some great support from friends and family down here." She also had work to do. Mike McCarthy, a favorite producer of Austin acts like Spoon and "¦ And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, had sought out Wennerstrom after hearing her now-defunct group perform on NPR. The two drummed up a partnership in an Austin bar to work on the Bastards' next album.

All she needed was a band.

Luckily, there was another Ohio native kicking about in Austin. Colvin, who previous playeded with Wennerstrom in an act called Shesus, was attending graduate school at the University of Texas. Wennerstrom recruited him, and the two convinced Ebaugh, the bassist that helped her cut her original Bastards demo, to join them. Rounding out the crew is Nathan, the only native Texan and the only new member credited with working on "The Mountain," which was completed before the new lineup was set.

"I think we all clicked right away," Wennerstrom said. "Already knowing each other and having played music together in the past made us gel together pretty rapidly."

A new band with an old name, the group has been touring steadily in support of "The Mountain," heralded as the act's strongest disc to date. Blues-infused and rock-inspired, Wennerstrom's lyrics delve into personal experience and the current economic crisis.

With a name that's no worse for wear and music that commands attention, there's really only one more thing Wennerstrom feels listeners need to know about the Heartless Bastards.

"We're not really heartless," she said. "Blair Waltman

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