“We’re back!” shouted Dan Reed at the top of today’s Free at Noon — XPN’s first in-person midday concert in 574 days — and as the crowd’s cheers swelled, he just let the feeling hang there in the air for a moment.

“I wanna say to this live audience,” Reed continued, “thank you for listening to XPN and thanks for being vaxed.”

As the Cincinnati rootsy rockers Heartless Bastards took the stage, the room’s energy felt very much in sync; cautious and uncertain, but full of emotion, and as the slow-burn build of “Revolution” crescendoed into thumping drums and roaring guitars, it was an explosion in the best way.

“It feels so good to play music again,” shouted frontperson Erika Wennerstrom between songs. “We’re so honored to open this stage back up here.”

The set felt custom-picked to fit the afternoon’s themes: the slow shuffle of “How Low” provided a backdrop to lyrics about being down, getting to the top, and finding balance. The dreamlike chimes of “A Beautiful Life” created a Fleetwood Mac-esque ambiance as Wennerstrom sang “Can you hear me crying through these crowing pains? Can you hear me laughing through these growing pains?”

“Dust” was an Allman Brothers-esque rambler that found the band resolute — “the time has come to make your stand,” Wennerstrom sang — while “Went Around The World” rode a slow groove to dream of far off places and finding clarity.

“After not being able to play, it’s so much more special,” said Wennerstrom as the performance wound down. “I want it to always be that way, I don’t take it for granted at all.”

Listen back to Heartless Bastards’ Free at Noon performance below, and see them headline World Cafe Live tonight; tickets and more information can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.

Heartless Bastards Free at Noon 10.01.2021

How Low
A Beautiful Life
The River
Went Around The World
The Thinker