Hartheim - Manchester Roadhouse
A few weeks back I'm chewing the fat with Mike Emerson, the wiry, inimitable presence who fronts Hartheim, the Manchester outfit for whom the buzz is, for once, real and justified. I tell him I've just been to see 2:54. "Any good?" he asks, a face full of doubt. Yeah, they were great says I. Surprised me. "Nah," he says, wrinkling his nose. "I'm not keen. I find them a bit too dark." Theres a pause. We look at each other. And I laugh. Here's Emerson, the leader of a band who take not only their name but their vision and their cue from a Nazi euthanasia camp, the Austrian prison in which 30,000 Jews lost their lives, turning his nose up at the goth-lite stylings of the Thurlow sisters. A bit too dark. I wipe my eyes. Emerson laughs, too: "You know what I mean, you fucker..."
I know what he means. I think. That informed worldview, and a sense of humour that is nothing if not dark, manifests itself pre-gig as the self-appointed Hartheim hardcore convene in the dank depths of The Roadhouse. "Thank fuck for that," says Emerson as we shuffle in. "With a bit of luck, we might just make double figures." On an evening that redefines 'poorly promoted', every venue in town appears to have a gig on. (Even the latest NME blokes-with-guitars package tour – The Somethings supported by The Somethings and a couple of even lesser chancers – can’t fill The Ritz.) And Hartheim arrive to find themselves unexpectedly headlining rather than supporting (Liverpool's Strange Collective.) And despite the competition, there's no concealing the fact that we're in classic 'bloke and his dog' territory.
One day, I'll tell people I saw Hartheim play to the gig equivalent of a football team (five-a-side) and they'll snort. I'll tell them the band barely noticed and played the best show of their seven to date. I'll be rightly dismissed as some preening 'I was there' goon. Still, intimacy at such an undignified level seems to suit them and Hartheim are phenomenal tonight. They drop signature tune and crowd-grabber 'Yellow' and play a set that pitches songs that have formed the foundation of their shows to date against a handful of newer tracks. "This one's about Catholic priests fucking young boys," is how Emerson introduces 'Father the Son'. No-one laughs. That's because it's not a joke.
A self-confessed bag of nerves before gigs, Emerson seems comfortable tonight. Maybe because it's a school night, he swaps his preferred bottle of red wine tonight for a bottle of Leffe (750ml size, naturally.) During a blistering 'Satin', he's a twitchy, electrified presence, buried deep within the music. The band hold it, themselves, him together and they, more than anything, are becoming something monstrous and huge. The further out Emerson steps, the firmer hold they take. No wig-outs or impromptu jams: this lot play it cool, hold it down, focus hard. Special note tonight for bassist George Heaton, whose deft playing finds all the right space in, and gives colour to, these stately other-worldly anthems.
Six songs, and they all land killer blows. Hartheim fear nothing, least of all the truth. Think hard before venturing into the sour, unforgiving examination of divorce that is 'When Did Your Last Rose Die.' Before their scorched earth re-claiming of Billie Holiday's 'Strange Fruit', Emerson lasers through the recent controversy involving a singer who should know better appearing to gloss over the song's inarguable subject matter: "This is a song about black people being murdered. Get fucked, Annie Lennox."
Ultimately, as practice sessions go, it's a febrile and note perfect work out. Boy, they can play. Tell us something we didn't know. But, as an event, it leaves a little to be desired, even though its head-scratching novelty will linger long. You shoulda been there. No, seriously.