Bird & Hartheim - Manchester First Chop Brewing Arm
You know you’re up against it when the headliners end up tweeting the address and postcode of the venue. For the uninitiated, locate First Chop Brewing Arm by first pulling up as close to the set of scuzzy railway arches it occupies as the extended set of roadworks right outside will allow. Then continue to circle the block looking in vain for parking, squeal up to a single unoccupied meter in Spinningfields half a mile away, tramp across the river and sneak through the site fencing, locate its unwelcoming entrance, and eventually emerge into a cobbled ‘beer garden’ where a DJ blasts out what may well be the collected works of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Once inside, dismiss your definition of ‘venue’ and revel in this emerging craft brewer’s selection of £3 a pint ales and an atmosphere the city’s more féted haunts would struggle to match. In short, you’re in an Anderson shelter surrounded by boxes of hops, where wooden pallets double as seats and the stage is little more than plywood panels balanced on beer barrels. What’s not to like?
Enter Hartheim, tonight’s main support. Locally, there’s a buzz. But then when is there not of late? Manchester, increasingly capable of setting the hares running every time some sweaty oik manages to finger E minor, foists its latest saviours upon us on a daily basis. So, pinch of salt at the ready. But Hartheim are different. There’s the name for a start. Hartheim: the Austrian euthanasia centre that received concentration camp prisoners in their thousands during the Holocaust. Yeah, that should see off the mildly curious. Then there’s signature – indeed, only available yet - tune ‘Yellow’; in lesser hands, a revisiting of indie rock anthemics, colour as, ooh, meaning, etc. Or, if its bruising refrain (“Your god has so much to answer for…”), is a clue, more likely a reference to the Nazis' Fall Gelb (‘case yellow’), that devastating early WWII push through France? Picture the opening credits to Dad’s Army. But without the hasty retreat. Slap me if that’s over-thinking it. Either way, Hartheim’s five song set is a vicious introduction to a potentially challenging manifesto. They present as your standard five piece (vocals, guitar, bass, keys, drums) but they carry a vagabond spirit, not least in lead singer Mike Emerson, whose hefty burr and confrontational stage persona marks them out as a cut above. Seemingly fearless, they stamp authority and identity on a chilling cover of Billie Holiday's 'Strange Fruit'. Take note. When was the last time you chanced upon a band that asked so many questions of you?
“I hope you’re looking forward to seeing the best new band in Britain as much as we are,” says Emerson as Hartheim exit. How refreshing to hear those kind of plaudits be sent the way of something other than the usual four blokes with guitars and ersatz ‘retro’ influences. Bird are so, so much more than we might have dared hope as they began to make early waves in their home town of Liverpool just a couple of years ago. Recent debut My Fear and Me signalled their emerging song craft; tonight’s performance confirms they know their way around a stage like old ‘uns. They erupt into opener ‘Ghost’ – one moment, they’re fiddling with tunings and kicking cables, the next they’re all over us, a febrile, electrified remove from Bird on record.
Their live set up shifts priorities to allow for proper capturing of that tasty predilection for rhythm over melody, singer Adele and keyboard player Christian swapping bass and floor toms between them. Guitarist Sian emerges as the fulcrum of their multi-faceted sound, retaining the clean finger-picking that colours much of the album but keeping her overdrive pedal in business throughout.
So, this is Bird. And to think early observers painted them as purveyors of indie-folk whimsy. They play with force and volume, breathe fire into their increasingly distinct dream pop, and they’re twice the band for it. The live versions of their songs are all abrasion and abandon. The snaking bass thrum of ‘Oh My Love’ is transformed, the guitar a howlaround squall. ‘Sea of Trees’ and ‘I Am the Mountain’ are played out and explored but Bird, telepathically tight, are in no danger of losing sight of each other. As they’re called back for what appears to be a genuinely unplanned encore (“Seriously – we hadn’t planned for this. Let’s see how it goes…”), drummer Lex looking worryingly spent, guitars are pulled out of flight bags and hastily tuned before they close out with a tender take on ‘Dorothea’. For once, they put poise before punch and float their most delicate moment away and beyond. This band you thought you knew: you were wrong.