The band that performs "Crazy On You" every time you hear it on the radio no longer exists. That was an early version of Heart, the Seattle rock band fronted by sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson, including lead guitarist Roger Fisher and bassist Steve Fossen. Yet because that incarnation racked up the band's biggest hits in the '70s, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame prompted a reunion during Heart's induction ceremony earlier this year.
That was awkward. "When we first walked in, it was pretty uncomfortable. We rehearsed for an hour or so, and we still knew the song, so that's what we needed," says Ann Wilson, by phone from her Seattle home, where her dog, George, can be heard barking in the background as he chases a rat through her wilderness of a backyard. "We just kind of stood there like a bunch of people who used to know each other 35 years ago."
Heart's performance was triumphant — after Soundgarden's Chris Cornell said in his induction speech that the Wilson sisters "blasted any sexist barriers in front of them," they played "Crazy On You" with the original lineup, then joined Cornell, Pearl Jam's Mike McCready and Alice In Chains' Jerry Cantrell for "Barracuda." But it left bad feelings. Two of Heart's later members, bassist Mark Andes and drummer Dennis Carmassi, sued the Hall of Fame for using their likenesses without inducting them. "There have been so many other people that have been in Heart that didn't get to stand up there with us, and were really upset about it," Wilson says. "It was a difficult situation.
"But," she adds, "what an honor!"
Heart's convoluted history begins in the early '70s, when Ann (the oldest sister, now 64) joined a 7-year-old Vancouver band including Fossen, Fisher and his brother Mike. Nancy had dropped out of college in Oregon. "She got tired of it," Ann recalls. "I kept on begging her to join the band up in Vancouver, and finally she just decided to go ahead. Our parents got to the end of the line with paying for college." The early Heart accepted a two-week gig at a disco club called Lucifer's, in Calgary, 14 hours away by car.
The owner hated the band, believing it should play more cover songs, and felt the packed houses it regularly drew was "the wrong crowd," which drank too much beer and not enough expensive liquor. The club's complimentary meals arrived on plates that reeked of Pine-Sol. Wrote Ann, in the sisters' biography "Kicking & Screaming" two years ago: "I began to wonder if Lucifer's was trying to poison us because we weren't a disco band."
After building up a Vancouver fan base, Heart's music reached independent record label Mushroom, whose owner released 1975's "Dreamboat Annie" in the U.S. This would become Heart's classic-rock touchstone — by repeating "Crazy On You" and "Magic Man" for decades, FM radio stations immortalized Ann's hulking voice and Nancy's complementary riffs. They kept recording hits, from "Barracuda" in 1978 to the stripped-down, new-wave-friendly "Bebe le Strange" in 1980, until the original lineup split up.
By the mid-'80s, Ann was ingesting so much cocaine that it was affecting her performances, forcing Nancy to cover for her on stage, according to their book. And the Wilsons allowed Heart to drift into a new, more commercial direction, with fewer heavy guitar solos and more songs by bland writers such as Diane Warren. The strategy was a success, generating Top 10 singles such as "What About Love?" and "Never." But it tore up the Wilsons. "Sometimes you slip into things you don't know you're slipping into," she says. "The whole '80s thing was where the music industry was changing and becoming very corporate. ... It stopped being about music and it started being more about image, and it wasn't long before it was completely boring and uncomfortable."
The Wilsons weren't writing a lot of songs, as they'd done in the '70s, but that was not by choice. "Our songs were not being accepted," she says. "Insulting. So there was this weird negativity around us, all the time, in that era that we made more money than ever."
Heart sat out most of the '90s, as the Wilsons downsized into a folkier duo they called the Heartmongers. Nancy worked on soundtracks (like one for "Almost Famous," directed by Cameron Crowe, her husband at the time) and Ann appeared on tribute tours. They restarted Heart 10 years ago, most memorably with a version of Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2012. The Wilsons are continuing the Zep homage on Heart's current tour, with the late drummer John Bonham's son Jason.
Wilson finally met the band's singer, Robert Plant, one of her early heroes, during his "Raising Sand" tour with Alison Krauss. "He mentioned that he had a couple of vocal glitches that night, and I said, 'Well, then, maybe you should stop talking. ... I won't be offended,'" Wilson recalls. "He went, 'I'm a crooner now. I don't have to do all that rock stuff anymore.' That was really telling. He moved on."
Wilson has not made the same transition. "I love to croon," she says, pausing to note her dog has stopped barking and, perhaps, caught the rat. "But I love the rock thing, too."
When: 7 p.m. Sunday
Where: Ravinia Festival, Lake-Cook and Green Bay Roads, Highland Park
Tickets: $38; 847-266-5100 or ravinia.org