Maintaining one of rock’s greatest voices requires sacrifice. Like abstaining from cheering at your kid’s football game.
“I am going to have to use some restraint,” Heart’s Ann Wilson said by phone last Friday before heading out of her Seattle home to see her son’s high school game.
In lieu of taxing her famous voice by urging teenagers to get tough on D, “I will just have to wave my arms around,” Wilson said.
At 63, Wilson still hits the high notes on “Magic Man” and “Crazy on You,” and can sing-scream on key and with an agility matched by few in rock history beside Robert Plant and Pat Benatar.
Heart, fronted by Wilson and her guitar-playing sister, Nancy, 59, for nearly 40 years, will perform Saturday at Thunder Valley Casino Resort in a sold-out concert. During the past few years, the band has become more visible and inspired a new wave of appreciation.
In September 2012, the Seattle sisters, both mothers of two (Nancy has twin sons with filmmaker ex-husband Cameron Crowe, and Ann adopted a girl and a boy on her own), received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame honoring them and their band. In December, the Wilsons performed “Stairway to Heaven” for honorees Led Zeppelin at the Kennedy Center Honors — a televised performance that went viral and became an iTunes single.
In April, Heart was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The renewed attention coincides with the 2012 releases of the Wilson-sister memoir “Kicking & Dreaming,” a career-spanning box set called “Strange Euphoria” and the new studio album “Fanatic.”
Those projects helped generate “a lot of notice,” Wilson said. “A lot of people had been lobbying for a long time for us to be inducted (into the Hall of Fame), and it all came together.”
Wilson called the induction, the ceremony for which included a speech by fellow Seattle rocker Chris Cornell and an onstage performance with original Heart guitarist (and Nancy’s ex-boyfriend Roger Fisher) “a huge, incredible, stupendous honor.”
But it was also le strange, baby.
“That night, I felt detached, just because I intended the next week to get out and do more gigs and keep on going,” Wilson said. Heart, she said, is “an ongoing, evolving thing,” lifetime awards or no.
The band remains creatively vital, which is not the case for many so-called classic rock acts. “Fanatic,” like Heart’s 2010 album “Red Velvet Car,” won praise for its energy. It mixes blasting rock on songs such as the title track with slightly mellower material highlighting the sisters’ vocal collaborations (Nancy also has a very fine voice) and melodic songwriting.
“‘Fanatic’ reclaims folk music from the Mumblefords, teaches all rock bands how to actually rock, and continues Heart’s legacy of being, quite frankly, one of the best bands we have ever had,” Matt Cibula wrote in a review of “Fanatic” on the online magazine PopMatters.
She and Nancy write and record “when we get a big bee in our bonnet,” Wilson said. “But performing live is my favorite model, because you can’t fake anything. You listen to the radio, and you are mostly hearing processed vocals and processed everything. … I prefer performing live because … it is a more true human experience.”
The Wilsons flirted with artificiality in the mid- to late-1980s. That period of their career produced some of Heart’s highest-charting hits (“These Dreams” — with lead vocal by Nancy — “Alone,” “What About Love”) but held the potential to compromise the band’s rock legacy.
At their record label’s insistence, Heart’s 1980s hits were written by outside songwriters. Despite the music’s adult-contemporary leanings, the Wilsons sported metal-goddess getups in their ’80s music videos. Nancy’s hair reached Lita Ford heights, plus about a foot, and editing tricks were used to make Ann appear more svelte. By 1998, when Heart’s VH1 “Behind the Music” documentary aired, the Wilsons had disavowed their 1980s styling.
That their overly made-up phase came midway in their careers, and not as naive industry beginners, made it sadder. In the 1970s, the Wilsons occupied a sweet spot in the music industry, in looks and song.
Prone to hippie blouses, they were attractive without being showy. Their songwriting could be Stevie Nicks-poetic (“Dog and Butterfly”) but did not go full witchy woman.
Straight-ahead rockers, Heart drew more comparisons to Led Zeppelin than to other female-fronted bands.
“Somehow, it never occurred to us that Ann and Nancy Wilson were women existing authentically in a world dominated by men,” Cornell said in his induction speech, referring to himself and friends who grew up listening to Heart. “Heart, with two Joan of Arcs standing up front, kicking total ass, backed by a surprisingly powerful and unique band, blasted down any sexist barriers in front of them.”
Cornell and Seattle guitarists Mike McCready (Pearl Jam) and Jerry Cantrell (Alice in Chains) joined Heart onstage at the Hall of Fame ceremony for a powerhouse, extra-galloping “Barracuda.”
The Wilson sisters had taken their own turn, a few months earlier, paying musical tribute to Led Zeppelin. Plant, seated in the Kennedy Center audience, was visibly moved by a performance that included a full choir and Jason Bonham (son of late Zeppelin drummer John Bonham) on drums.
Ann Wilson spent time backstage with Plant, a big influence.
“I am still such a fan, and I have to take really deep breaths in his presence,” she said.
Plant was Wilson’s vocal model when she was “going from being a choir girl to being a rock singer” in her early 20s, she said. “Led Zeppelin was all over the radio. Their albums were all anybody wanted to hear, and we learned how to play a bunch of their songs. It turned out I was the only one in the band who could sing that high.”
Plant rarely sings that high anymore.
But Wilson does. And she will continue to do so, beside her sister, as long as it feels organic.
“What we want is a long, slow, natural career, with sincere songs that come when the time is right,” Wilson said. “We don’t have a time frame for when it’s going to be over. We are just naturally going along doing it.”
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB