When the main act lacks its front man, promoting the support band to the headline spot, the crowd has been known to disperse, muttering to themselves, or else to stick around resolved to have a shitty time.
Thankfully this was not the case on Sunday. In spite of Beirut’s Zach Condon’s absence (personal reasons – don’t be nosy) an enthusiastic crowd waited for a later-than-planned performance by Jeremy Barnes’ A Hawk and A Hacksaw. We were rewarded for our loyalty with a heady brew of plaintive ballads and central-European stomps that helped hold off the inevitable Sunday night blues.
The former Neutral Milk Hotel percussionist (and, bizarrely, one-time Leicester postie) took to the stage wielding an accordion and sporting a bell-trimmed fur hat. Perhaps worried he wouldn’t be able to make enough noise Barnes had also taped drumsticks to his head and knees allowing him to bring kettle drums and cow bells into the performance. He was joined by regular AHAAH member Heather Trost playing klezmer violin.
Together they set about reimagining forgotten Slavic marches and gypsy dances, creating a sound so contrary to the usual guitarx2/bass/drums/nasal voice combo. that for a moment the last couple of hundred years of musical history were erased from our minds. The music is largely instrumental but the duo’s voices occasionally chimed in to highlight melodies and reinforce the rhythms with repeated chants. Song titles such as God Bless the Ottoman Empire and Our Lady of the Vlatva suggested this was music with its back to the West and its eyes trained firmly on the expanses of the near-East and beyond.
Two by two, members of the Beirut joined the stage bringing saxophones, clarinets and various bangable and shakable instruments, swelling the sound and giving Barnes the chance to cut-loose on the accordion. The two bands were clearly used to playing together, perhaps unsurprisingly since Barnes had helped out on Beirut’s debut and their music seems to share a common language, and together they transformed the sorrowful melodies that had begun the show into frenetic campfire jams. Tambourines spilled into the audience followed shortly afterwards by the musicians themselves, ending the night with the musical equivalent of a red-carpet walkabout, to the delight of most and the bemusement of a few. Two encores later they were gone leaving an after-taste of Bohemia in the mouths of a satisfied audience.
A Hawk and A Hacksaw’s latest release ‘The Way the Wind Blows’ is out now on Leaf Records.
Words and photos by Alex Edouard