Nancy Wilson Still Brings Heart to the Stage

Story by MARRIE STONE

Photos by Jeremy Danger

More than four decades after rising to fame, Nancy Wilson still has the strength, stamina and talent to rock the stage. She also continues to bring pure passion for music with a signature sound that’s carved itself into hard rock history. On Saturday, Dec 8, Wilson is coming to the Irvine Bowl to perform a number of Heart’s greatest hits – including “Magic Man” and “Barracuda” – as well as many new releases with lead vocalist Liv Warfield and their band Roadcase Royale. 

Nancy Wilson with Liv

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Nancy Wilson and Liv Warfield

It’s more than nostalgia that accounts for Wilson’s enduring success. When Warfield (a former member of Prince’s New Power Generation) opened for a Heart concert at the Hollywood Bowl in 2015, Liv told Nancy, “I wanna rock! I’ve always wanted to rock more!” Wilson replied, “Well, I’ve always had the obligation to rock.” When art isn’t an option, but an obligation, the audience can tell. It becomes about something more than music.

The creation of Roadcase Royale

While Wilson was looking for an opener for her two 2015 concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, she happened to see Liv Warfield performing on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. “Her energy, her power, her presence, it was so overwhelming,” says Wilson in her band’s bio. “It was like, ‘Oh my God…’ ” 

Warfield and her guitarist Ryan Waters – another protégé of Prince – were invited to perform at those two Hollywood Bowl shows and, soon after, Roadcase Royale was born. The group also includes three current members of Heart – keyboardist Chris Joyner, bassist Dan Rothchild, and drummer Ben Smith. Wilson says the band functions like an “inspired democracy.” All members contribute to the direction and sound of the music. “There’s just this great collective energy,” Warfield says. “Everybody pitches in and brings a piece of something to the writing table.”

Nancy Wilson group

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 (L-R) Dan Rothchild, Chris Joyner, Liv Warfield, Nancy Wilson, Ben Smith, Ryan Waters

The band blends Wilson’s legendary guitar stylings with Warfield’s powerhouse vocals. The result, says the band’s bio, “conjures an explosive and affecting rock-and-soul sound that nods to each musician’s particular musical past while also looking ahead to explore bold sonic frontiers.”

Back to Heart

But before there was Roadcase Royale there was, of course, Heart. Sisters Nancy and Ann Wilson were the faces of the first female fronted hard rock band in the 1970s. 

“Heart was the first band led by women, songs written by women, all decisions made by women,” said Pearl Jam’s manager Kelly Curtis. What made them successful wasn’t their beauty, but their raw talent. “How we look has never been what’s important to us,” said Nancy Wilson. “It’s about the music.” 

Nancy Wilson closeup

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Nancy Wilson

Maybe their success was rooted in something even more mystical than music. “Heart has always been about something deeper than music. It’s about blood and sisterhood,” said Jim Forbes of VH1’s Behind the Music. That sister synergy is something Nancy felt too. “It’s DNA,” she said. “It’s chemical. But it’s also magical.” 

“It’s an amazing dynamic to have the two of them get along and be able to work and live together,” said guitarist Howard Leese on the same VH1 episode. “And yet they’re really different. It’s yin and yang.” 

The earliest iterations of the band started in the late 1960s and early 1970s with bassist Steve Fossen, guitarist Roger Fisher, lead vocalist Don Wilhelm and Ray Schaefer on drums. Then the band was known as The Army, and they played around the suburbs of northern Seattle. 

When the draft heated up during the Vietnam War, the band moved to Canada. Ann answered an advertisement for a vocalist and joined the group in late 1972. And, in 1974, after a few years of college, Nancy joined as the lead guitarist. Once the Wilson sisters were at the helm, Heart soon rose to international fame.

Heart has sold more than 35 million records to date worldwide, including over 22.5 million in album sales in the U.S. They’ve had top 10 albums on the Billboard 200 in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2010s. “Alone” (1987) and “These Dreams” (1986) both made number 1 on the charts. “All I Wanna Do is Make Love to You” made it to number 2 in 1990. And “Never” hit number 4 in 1985.

The group ranked number 57 on VH1’s “100 Greatest Artists of Hard Rock” and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013. 

Growing up Wilson

Ann and Nancy grew up with a father in the marines. They followed their parents around the world, living in Panama and Taiwan. “Music was everything,” their mother, Lou Wilson, said. “There was no music there, for us, as we knew it. We made our own music.”

When Ann contracted mononucleosis in 1963, her parents bought her a guitar to pass the time. But it was Nancy who soon fell in love with it. Her family nickname became “Whiz Fingers.” “She took over Ann’s guitar and sped ahead in her virtuosity,” said older sister Lynn. She was a natural. “I couldn’t get enough of it,” said Nancy. “I brought it in bed with me and slept with it. It was a romantic, symbolic thing. He was my first boyfriend.”

Nancy Wilson with guitar

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Nancy started playing guitar in the early sixties

In August of 1966, The Beatles performed at the Seattle Center Coliseum, which was the turning point for both Nancy and Ann. They saw what they wanted and began pursuing it full bore. The two spent their teens performing at parties, drive-ins, auto shows and church socials. By the time Ann answered that fated ad, she knew music would be her life. 

The advantages of age

When asked about aging in an industry saturated in youth and beauty, Nancy says, “Age is a definite benefit as a musician and a performer.” Time brings with it experience and wisdom. “It’s a silly equation as long as you stay young despite your age,” she says. “You actually become better and better at your craft.” 

Time also brings predictable trials. No one, however talented and famous, avoids life’s hardships. Nancy and Ann have both suffered a series of heartbreaks. Ann has battled issues with her weight and addiction. And they endured a fissure in their relationship in 2015. “Hindsight is always 20/20 after you already had to learn it all the hard way without the safety net hindsight gives you later,” Nancy says.

Nancy Wilson with crown

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Still fascinated by music

But she appears to have come through the hard times stronger, centered, and still infatuated by her first love – music.

Nancy’s inspirations and new adventures

Who are the artists working today that Nancy admires? “I am always amazed with the great new artists out there today and not only the new ones,” says Nancy. “I’m a big fan these days of Greta Van Fleet, Father John Misty, LCD Soundsystem, Haim, Ben Howard, Childish Gambino, Jim James, Janelle Monae, Maggie Rogers…and so many more.”

But for now, she’s still concentrating on her own work, putting out albums and perfecting her new sound with Roadhouse Royale. What can the audience expect on December 8th? “We will rock the walls off and play plenty of Heart hits plus a bunch of our new originals, including “Get Loud,” and one of our favorites off the new album from First Things First called “Hold On To My Hand” which is a Colin Hay cover. Plus a few covers that we have found to be well received. We hope to see you there for a great night of rock and roll with soul!”

For tickets, go to www.kx935.com.