Heart’s epic new CD/DVD/Blu-ray, Live at the Royal Albert Hall with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (opens in new tab), captures the band’s first performance—ever—at the legendary London venue.
The sold-out show, which took place in June, was highlighted by hit after hit—from “Crazy on You” and “Barracuda” to “Magic Man” and “Dreamboat Annie”—plus tracks from the band's engaging new studio album, Beautiful Broken.
Besides Ann Wilson (vocals) and Nancy Wilson (guitar/vocals), the band that night included Ben Smith (drums), Dan Rothchild (bass), Craig Bartock (guitar), Chris Joyner (keyboards) and, of course, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Nick Davies.
I recently spoke with Nancy Wilson about the Royal Albert Hall performance, gear and the stories behind some of the band’s biggest hits.
When and how did the idea for a performance at the Royal Albert Hall originate?
We had been pushing the concept of bringing the band over to the U.K. and doing some shows for some time. That was when someone who had been handling big shows at Royal Albert Hall got wind that we were coming over and asked if we’d be interested in doing a World Symphony show. And we were like, “Uhm, yeah! I think we could manage that!” [laughs]. It all fell together very naturally.
What was the process like in terms of putting orchestration behind the band’s iconic songs?
It was a cool thing because we already had some standard charts from Paul Buckmaster, who worked us on Beautiful Broken. But we didn’t want to give it a pastoral kind of sound. We wanted more of a rock-symphony sound. We came over and had one day with Nick Davies looking over the charts and talking them over. We perused through them together and decided what to add and what take out.
The same day as the show was the only day we actually rehearsed with the orchestra. They’re so insanely talented. Once we got out there and saw how great it sounded in the room, we knew right away it was going to work. That’s when we said, “Ok, let’s go have some fun!”
This year also marks the 40th anniversary of Heart’s debut album, Dreamboat Annie. When you look back at that era, what immediately comes to mind?
It was so many lifetimes ago, and I became a few different people, in a way, since then. When you’re in your twenties, your brain hasn’t even finished baking and your hormones are giving you all kinds of direction of which ways to go. Then in your thirties, it’s a different kind of learning curve, and you have to get through all of the different stages of success—and lack thereof. Coming to it now with the Royal Albert Hall show is very special at this time. Especially now with this lineup of Heart, that, in my opinion, is the finest we’ve ever had—and we’ve had some fine lineups.
I’d like to ask you about a few of Heart’s classic songs and get your thoughts; maybe what inspired them, how they were written or whatever you'd like to share. Let's start with "Crazy on You."
We had a chance to make our first album in Vancouver, and there was interest because someone had seen us in a club. Ann and I were excited to be able to write originals and had actively started writing fresh material.
One night, I remember being really sick in bed with chills and a fever when Ann came in all excited and said, “I have these lyrics! Let me read them to you!” They were the lyrics to “Crazy on You,” and in my fever haze I said, “Yeah! Those are really good!” Later, as we started putting in the guitar, I thought it would be really cool to write an acoustic intro. At the time, we had been listening to a lot of Yes and the Fragile album, where Steve Howe was doing some really cool acoustic intros. It took me a few days to get it all sorted out, but it really worked out well with that song.
That was a reactionary moment toward some slime ball we had met who actually thought Ann and I were lovers. It was a pissed-off song about that misconception and how outraged we were about it. And when you have something to be outraged about, it’s a good time to write a rock song.
That was mostly Ann writing lyrics about when she fell in love and left home for the first time. It’s very autobiographical and confessional. I remember we had a hard time trying to find the right groove to put on it. We tried several and toyed around with it and made it more of a swing than a straight-on four-on-the-floor. It was an interesting groove and one well worth the time of putting together.
What’s your current setup like when you perform?
I really like the Budda head with a big Orange cabinet with Celestion 30 speakers and my ’63 Fender (opens in new tab) Telecaster. There was a bit of a debate I had with my guitar tech, Jeff Ousely, who didn’t want me to take the Tele overseas. But I said it just wouldn’t be the same without the Tele at the Royal Albert Hall. It’s an iconic guitar with all of the history—and a guitar I’ve played forever.
Are you working on anything special at the moment?
I’ve got a brand new side project I’m working on with Liv Warfield. She kicks ass and is an incredible singer. I’m getting some material together with Liv and guitarist Ryan Waters as well as my drummer Ben Smith, bass player Dan Rothchild and keyboard player Chris Joyner from Heart. We’ve had a few rehearsals so far that have been very exciting, and we’re writing some new songs. We’re going to see if we can make a run of shows and do something cool and fun. Then we’ll see where Heart lands after that.
Obviously the Royal Albert Hall show is one of them, but are there any other Heart moments that stand out to you as most extra-memorable?
There’s the Kennedy Center Honors show where we honored Led Zeppelin. That was definitely a highlight. Hardly a day goes by where someone doesn’t mention it, especially when we’re touring. That one and the Royal Albert Hall are hard to beat. Those are two of the pillars of excitement in my life.
James Wood is a writer, musician and self-proclaimed metalhead who maintains his own website, GoJimmyGo.net. His articles and interviews are written on a variety of topics with passion and humor. You can follow him on Twitter @JimEWood.