No two tours of A Hawk And A Hacksaw are alike.
Last year, Jeremy Barnes and Heather Trost were joined by Balazs Ungar on cimbalom, a type of hammered dulcimer. The collaboration followed the release of a record made in Hungary with The Hun Hangár Ensemble. They’ve previously incorporated members of other bands into their on-stage outings, notably members of Beirut.
Tonight, opening for Portishead in a venue considerably bigger than they’re usually to be found in, the duo were joined by two new faces.
One was a trumpeteer (mainly) and the other played what looked like a type of lute, though both also had fiddles. Barnes, with his ever-present accordion, was dressed in black trousers and white shirt and, with a quirky little moustache, for all the world resembled a waiter. Trost stuck to her fiddle.
As a foursome they represented a timeless musical tradition, derived largely from central Europe’s folk music, with instruments that could be plugged in or not, depending on their surrounds. Their lo-fi set-up was the polar opposite to that of tonights’ headliners, with their astonishingly complex array of gizmology. Rustic charm was palpable.
New material involved Barnes banging away on a variety of what seemed to be inventively hand-crafted drums. One of these sported a shoulder strap and a cymbal stuck to its side. Barnes bashed away at it, like a wind-up little drummer boy, while the trumpet player ad-libbed a soaring sequence of parps and belches. Tracks on which Barnes laid down his accordion suggested a new seam of inspiration for A Hawk And A Hacksaw.
On just one track were vocals added to the mix, a brief duet between Barnes and Trost on an older number. Unlike their friend and compatriot Zach Condon’s Beirut, A Hawk And A Hacksaw are about music rather than songs – possibly to their detriment. When the two guest performers weren’t needed they stood about awkwardly, and it seemed a shame they weren’t always fully utilised.
As ever, there was much that was charming about this decidedly individualistic duo’s embrace of kletzmer and the rhythms of old Europe. But at the end of their set, astonishing conversations were overheard. “Are they Greek?” asked one chap, supping from his plastic beer glass. “I think they’re Hungarian, aren’t they?” muttered someone else. “Who the hell were they?” queried a third. It was brave and commendable of Portishead to invite A Hawk And A Hacksaw along for the ride, and by the end of their set they’d amassed a sizeable audience who gave them their full attention. But maybe these two bands’ audiences are not entirely interchangeable.