Classic Rock Corner

Heart's Ann Wilson Turns Archaeologist for Immortal

Ann Wilson
Ann Wilson Photo by Kimberly Adamis, courtesy of MSOPR

Some day in a distant future, maybe archaeologists will happen upon the modern hieroglyphics of our favorite classic rock songs. What might they learn about us from The Beatles’ “Let It Be” or Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven?”

It’s a notion that’s crossed the mind of Ann Wilson. The Heart vocalist has a new solo album in the wings titled Immortal and at its core it’s a reflection on the legacies of some of our favorite, departed artists. Wilson will be performing songs from it when she visits Smart Financial Centre next Tuesday as part of a bill also featuring Paul Rodgers and Jeff Beck.

Immortal is slated for a mid-September release, but the lead single dropped earlier this month. It’s Wilson’s take on “I Am the Highway,” an Audioslave song and a cosmic hug of sorts between her and the late Chris Cornell, who was a good friend. Other songs in the collection include Tom Petty’s “Luna,” George Michael’s “A Different Corner,” and the timely David Bowie track, “I’m Afraid of Americans.”

Wilson is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, whose iconic voice has given bombast to rock classics like “Barracuda” and nuance to tunes like “Alone.” She could have gone any way she wanted with her solo work and, for this project, she opted to cover songs by fellow artists. The Houston Press asked Wilson how she chose the songs and acts for the album.

“Well , the first criteria is that they had to have passed on and then they had to be artists that I really sincerely was inspired by,” she said by phone just days into her tour. “I didn’t want to cover any more than ten but so many people have decided to pass on recently, there was a good-sized list. So, I just chose the ones that really inspired me the most and then I went through each one of those and figured out a song, not necessarily the hits, but some songs that really resonated with me the most.”

With so much amazing music to choose from, Wilson said it was a bit of a miracle she could limit her choices. As a vocalist taking on others’ work, she fought the urge to consider songs outside the album’s theme.

“We had a joke, it was kind of a gallows humor joke I guess, but we had a joke during the making of the record that there are so many people with so many good songs, but they’re still alive.”

The album’s tracks include a Leonard Cohen song, nods to Cream’s Jack Bruce and the Eagles’ Glenn Frey. For many, these artists are greats who have passed on and left their music for us to remember them. Wilson, who has been rocking at music’s elite levels since the early 1970s, personally knew some of the artists she’s covering. We asked if focusing on the work of those who have gone to the great concert in the sky has given her any special, existential insight.

“I think that to be in life and to experience where you are at the moment you have to be somehow aware that it’s not going to last forever,” she said. “So, Immortal is really just about the expressions, sort of like paintings on a cave wall that someone discovers later.”

The songs also gave her a chance to flex her vocal muscle and re-imagine the works in a different way.

“For me as a singer to get to get inside some of that stuff, like the Amy Winehouse song, ‘Back to Black,’ was such a treat to get to re-do, in a whole different way. You can really see the darkness inside of her. When you take this sort of Motown, lightweight treatment off of ‘Back to Black’ you can see it really is quite dark.”

The tour is focusing on these and other songs Wilson finds compelling. The tunes she’s known for are present, but fans need to know they’re coming to see Ann Wilson and not Heart on this run of shows.

“Every night I’ve been doing like three Heart songs in the set, in a 90-minute set. I don’t really sense any difference in the response from the Heart songs and the other songs. I can’t really tell the difference in the audience response right now,” she said. “I don’t feel that they’re disappointed they’re not hearing more Heart stuff. That’s not really the point. The point would be for Heart to do the Heart stuff and for me to expand, you know?”

Also, the show is a three-headed hydra of rock monsters. Wilson said the acts are three distinct ones with three different bands. Still, we had to ask if at any point during the night the principal players might come together for at least one moment.

click to enlarge
Wilson includes a few Heart tunes and lots of surprises in her solo set
Photo by Jess Griffin, courtesy of MSOPR

“We discussed it shortly at a media event in New York and the consensus is that we just don’t know whether we’re going to do anything together. We don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said, selling the mystery. “It’s three distinct bands – mine, Jeff’s and Paul’s – and they are very interested in making sure it’s understood it’s not just one big free-for-all, it’s three distinct bands. So, we’ll just see what the old guys wanna do.”

We ask Wilson the requisite Houston question and make her day.

“Houston’s always been an amazing town. We usually have played at The Woodlands place and it’s always been way too hot and it’s always been fantastically cool, in terms of rock. It’s always been fun to be in Houston, it’s such a dramatic city and just cool culture there, I really like it there.”

We tell her she’s visiting Smart Financial Centre this time around and that it is fully equipped with A/C for a cool, climate-controlled evening.

“Is it an indoor venue? It’s actually indoors?” she asks with some amazement. “Aw, yay! That’s fantastic! You’ve made my day.”

It’s the least we can do for an artist whose songs we’ve enjoyed for five decades now. We hope the excavations of music-centric sites in the far-off future deliver tracks like “Magic Man” and “These Dreams” to rockin' archaeologists. We know Wilson is a Led Zeppelin devotee and ask which of their songs she’d hope future generations find on the proverbial cave wall.

“'The Rain Song' – fantastic, beautiful, poetic lyrics, great production,” she shared. “I think it’s Led Zeppelin at their most intelligent and poetic, it’s powerful. I just think it’s the perfect Zeppelin song.”

The Stars Align tour, featuring Jeff Beck, Paul Rodgers and Ann Wilson, 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 24, Smart Financial Centre, 18111 Lexington Boulevard, Sugar Land. Tickets $99.50.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.