In the pantheon of great classic rock singers, Ann Wilson of Heart is a titan.
Whether she’s belting out 1970s rockers like “Barracuda,” “Crazy on You” or “Magic Man,” or the dreamy 1980s power ballads “These Dreams,” “What About Love” and the karaoke-killer “Alone,” her voice is clear, versatile and precise; her range undeniably resilient. She can climb from a soft whisper to a full-throated sustained roar with a casual facility and an almost spooky power. It’s a voice so confident, so strong, that when she performed “Stairway to Heaven” in front of the remaining living members of Led Zeppelin at the 2012 Kennedy Center Honors ceremony, she almost made Robert Plant cry.
Backed by sister Nancy on lead guitar — who also performed at that Kennedy Center Honors performance — the Wilson sisters piloted Heart to worldwide success, an induction to the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2013, and being universally regarded as not just one of rock’s greatest female-led bands, but one of rock’s best bands. They both also, along with Jimi Hendrix, put Seattle on the musical map decades before grunge exploded in a fiery, hazy ball of flannel and fury.
Before Wilson joins the“Stars Align Tour” — with iconoclastic guitarist Jeff Beck and singer Paul Rodgers from Bad Company, each rotating as headlining acts — she'll embark on a mini tour of her own, which includes a stop at the Tachi Palace Hotel and Casino in Lemoore on July 12.
According to The Fresno Bee, Wilson’s Tachi Palace show will be the first at the casino’s newest structure: a 45,000-square-foot outdoor entertainment tent, 300 feet long and 150 feet wide, equipped with three oversized exhaust fans.
The perennially youthful Wilson turned 68 in June, and her memories of the Central Valley go back to her days as a child.
“When I was a little kid, we used to drive down from Seattle as a family to La Jolla, California, to visit my grandmother,” Wilson said in a telephone interview from Washington. “Back then, that was before the I-5 was in, so we’d have to drive down the valley on the 99 and we’d always stop in Bakersfield on a super-steaming baking hot day and get one of those cold Cokes at a gas station out of the freezer and have it in the car. For some reason, Bakersfield always stuck in my memory as being the place with the ice-cold Cokes in the hot sun.”
Wilson's Tachi Palace set will include a few Heart songs and some choice covers including selections from her upcoming solo album, "Immortal."
Out Sept. 14, the album is a collection of songs by artists who have passed away and were chosen based on Wilson's own connection to the material — sometimes personal, sometimes as a message. The album, produced by Mike Flicker, also gave the singer the opportunity to explore different styles and textures, such as jazz for her version of Leonard Cohen’s “A Thousand Kisses Deep,” and a twist on chamber music for Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black,”
“It’s pretty disparate,” Wilson said. “That's why the album is called 'Immortal' because the souls may have passed on, but their expressions are still here. I mean, the songs will last for as long as people want to listen to them. They're immortal; they're not going to die."
One of the surprising choices for the album, at least on the surface, was Gerry Rafferty’s cool sunglasses-and-saxophone-at-midnight tune “Baker Street.” But it's the song's context that really resonated with Wilson, that of people who “pounded the pavement trying to to get something happening and finally reaching the end of their patience with being turned away.”
“At the beginning of my career, trying to find a record deal," Wilson said, "it was very much like that. Or like after we had made our first record with Heart, ‘Dreamboat Annie,’ (also produced by Flicker; according to Wilson: "We've both come a long way since 1976.") and had to go around the country from radio station to radio station, convincing these disc jockeys to play it, and some would and some wouldn't. That was very much like what ‘Baker Street’ is talking about. I could really relate to ‘Baker Street’ in my own life.”
But as with all the songs on the album, she made it her own. The sax is gone — as is that big slide guitar “whooo” — but the melody and song’s message remain.
“The whole point of doing these songs was to do them my way; of course honoring the original versions and not making them ridiculous, but definitely trying to interpret them my way.”
Two songs are dedicated to specific musicians: Cream’s “Politician” in honor of Jack Bruce, and The Eagles’ “Life in the Fast Lane” in honor of Glenn Frey. For Wilson, who’s been sober since 2009, the song isn’t just a tribute for Frey who passed away in 2016, but a reminder of her own rock 'n' roll highway, albeit from the distance afforded in a rearview mirror.
She said, “I spent the whole decade of the '80s just partying it away and just going way too far, you know? And most of the '90s, I guess … I spent a long time just thinking that the rules don't apply to me.”
Along with songs by David Bowie (“I’m Afraid of Americans”), Chris Cornell/Audioslave (“I Am the Highway”), George Michael (“A Different Corner”) and Tom Petty (“Luna”), the album is closed out by Leslie Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me."
“When that song was written,” Wilson said, “it was definitely bold for 1964, for a chick to stand up and face her boyfriend and say, ‘You don't own me.’ That was big for back then. Later on, in the '70s, it became a feminist anthem among the Gloria Steinem/Bella Abzug wave. But now I feel that it's more universal than just a feminist anthem; I think it's a song about respect and self-respect among anyone.”
“There's so many people now standing up and saying, ‘This is who I am,’ no matter what their gender ID or sexual ID is. I think it's just universal now.”
As for Heart, Wilson and her sister, who still talk frequently because they are sisters, will get to the band when they get to it.
“That's exactly it," Wilson said, "we’ll get to it when and if we get to it. There's no feud between Nancy and I, that's all a myth, but right now we both deserve a well-deserved and healthy time to just get a breath.”