A seemingly nervous Nancy Wilson mentioned it right at the top of her first live show since the pandemic shut the world down: It’s been two years since she’s played for an audience.
The few live shows we’ve seen in the post-vaccination world have had their rough patches, and that was no different for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame member and Heart guitar hero’s show with the Seattle Symphony on Saturday night at Benaroya Hall in downtown Seattle.
It’s been a long, long time away from the stage for most live performers, and returning from the coronavirus pandemic shutdown must be one of the most difficult restarts for anyone in any medium. Live music with its reliance on group vibe, communal rehearsal and unspoken connection with each other and the audience must be even more difficult.
Part of The Essential Series, The Seattle Symphony’s cross-genre collaboration program that’s curated by Seattle-based composer Andrew Joslyn, the show was a complex organism — perhaps too complex for the beloved Seattle icon’s first show back from the shutdown.
Already postponed from the summer due to the delta variant, the show included a melding of new songs from her extremely personal and somber first true solo album, “You and Me,” classic crowd-pleasing hits from the Heart catalog and a few covers that lent themselves to the elegant surroundings and appearances by both the symphony’s string quartet and its full orchestra.
Wilson acknowledged the tightrope walk she was making after telling the crowd she’d been sidelined from performing for two years.
“Proper emceeing, I’ve got to remember how to do that,” she joked with the crowd. “Oh, who needs to be proper?”
A little later, before launching into Paul Simon’s “The Boxer,” she warbled, “I can’t believe this is happening.”
Wilson started her set with the solo instrumental “4 Edward,” played on the acoustic guitar, then was joined by her six-piece band for the title track from the new album, released last May. She followed with a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising,” a song she called “one for our times” as she strapped on a mandolin, then played another new album track, “I’ll Find You.”
After playing “The Boxer,” a favorite from her youth, she invited the symphony’s string quartet on stage.
“They’re good, believe me,” Wilson joked. “And they know how to read music, no less.”
The musicians then launched into the frenetic Heart hit “Crazy on You” with singer Kimberly Nichole handling Ann Wilson’s vocal parts. It was the first truly transcendent moment of the show, bringing the crowd to its feet and a high kick from Wilson as Nichole nailed the song’s intense and frenetic energy.
“I guess that’s a thumbs up,” Wilson said with a smile as the crowd responded.
Wilson brought on the full symphony following intermission and launched into a cover of Pearl Jam’s “Daughter” before strapping on the mandolin again for Heart’s “These Dreams.” After another pair of album tracks, including “Party at the Angel Ballroom,” cowritten with Guns N’ Roses’ Duff McKagan and Foo Fighters’ Taylor Hawkins, Wilson put the microphone in Nichole’s hands again for closer “Barracuda.”
Wilson slayed the song’s familiar and still-exhilarating riff on her Gibson SG. As Nichole, a Seattle native and 2015 finalist from “The Voice,” belted out Ann Wilson’s biting vocal part, Wilson finally seemed to shake the nerves and lean in to her performance.
Just like that, though, it was over. Wilson said good night and left the stage. She returned a moment later to salute the symphony and conductor Lee Mills. But the crowd mistook her reappearance for the start of an encore, then groaned when she left the stage again.
So, it wasn’t perfect. What is these days? But it was a return to live music, in all of its imperfect glory, and we’ll definitely take that.
Editor’s note: In an earlier version of this story, Nancy Wilson’s bassist was misidentified.