Erika Wennerstrom didn't have the most auspicious start to her rock 'n' roll career. When the acoustic guitar from her father showed up under the Christmas tree when she was 16, she looked at it without any particular desire to play. She finally made a go of it, but before the calluses could form she gave up, frustrated by how painful it was to press down on the strings.
It wasn't until two years later that the Dayton, Ohio, native, then a high school dropout working at a sub shop and looking for some sort of creative outlet, picked up the guitar and really started playing. She learned bar chords first and eventually forced herself to learn open chords.
"I'm still not sure I know any real chords," Wennerstrom, now 31, says in her throaty, Midwestern drawl. "I still tell people I don't really know how to play guitar." Onstage, partially hidden by a Les Paul Gold Top re-issue or a Gibson ES-125 hollow body (writers frequently mention her small stature as if amazed that a voice that big could come out of a body that small), Wennerstrom seems like a natural, simultaneously swaggering and at ease.
If her musical proficiency is in doubt -- and let it be noted that it's mostly Wennerstrom doing the doubting -- her musical instincts are not. Aside from sporting the best band name this side of Black Sabbath, the Heartless Bastards have the good fortune to ride the whirlwind that is Wennerstrom's voice. Low and husky in a range that's closer to that of a male tenor than a traditional female singer, it packs enough power that it can feel like a plague of locusts devouring a field and has enough subtlety to add ache to soft, bluesy tunes. Combined with Wennerstrom's canny ability for crafting throbbing hooks, it's lifted the Cincinnati-spawned Heartless Bastards to the level of top regional band, a label they're likely to transcend with their latest album, "The Mountain," out on Feb. 3.
Download the title track of "The Mountain" after the jump....