[3 June 2009]
A Hawk and a Hacksaw are the kind of band I wouldn’t mind playing my wedding or my wake. They alternate between upbeat, oom-pah led numbers, and mournful dirges with the switch of an accordion key. That they do so in such an idiosyncratic way makes whatever musical track they take always sound like them. Of course, this might be due to the fact that no other band in the indie realm—except Beirut of course—utilizes the same variety of musical sources. But while the Balkans and that area’s folk music is a jumping off point for A Hawk and a Hacksaw, Moroccan bazaars, Mariachi bands, and other Eastern influences also seep through into their sound.
Initially a one-man band consisting of former Neutral Milk Hotel drummer, Jeremy Barnes, A Hawk and a Hacksaw doubled in size several years ago with the addition of violinist, Heather Trost, as a permanent member. Over several albums and EPs, the duo’s sound—Trost’s violin and Barnes’ accordion—has been fleshed out by a revolving array of auxiliary musicians, most notably renowned gypsy brass band Fanfare Ciocarlia and the Hun Hangár Ensemble. While neither of these groups back Barnes and Trost on this current European tour, the duo are instead augmented by three additional musicians playing tuba, bouzouki, and trumpet.
At first, it’s fascinating. Each musician is thoroughly engaging. It’s not your typical instrumental set up either. All of tonight’s percussion comes via Barnes’ foot, which stomps out a minimalist beat upon the skin of a solitary kick drum that is also attached to a couple of tambourines. That he does this whilst simultaneously playing the accordion is cool. The fact that he’s always on beat and on key is impressive. Trost’s violin playing is rousing in that it seemingly spirals out of control like a wild steed only to be lassoed at the last moment. “Nimble” is an understatement when describing the bouzouki player, whose fingers dance across the fret board faster than a stenographer covering a front-page court case. The only musician whose playing seems un-chaotic and methodical is the tuba player. But while this might not be as exciting to watch, his deep notes, in lieu of a bass or proper rhythm, ties everything together, allowing Barnes and Co. to cavort in their gypsy instrumentation.
If there’s any complaint to be made it’s that, aside from an encore that found the band playing unplugged amongst the audience, crowd interaction was kept to a minimum. Instead of being encouraged to move and to dance, it seemed, at times, as though we were watching a museum piece. There was a gap between performer and audience that was never gulfed. I am sure that this has a lot to do with the band’s need to concentrate on their dexterous playing, but such joyous music, especially music of an instrumental nature, needs interaction and both band and audience failed to adhere to this. Sure, there were a few handclaps and some nodding of heads, but unfortunately the overall the atmosphere was one of reverence over reaction.