By James Currie
2020 is starting off with a strong contender to being one of the greatest performances of the year. Yes already. And it’s just mid January. How can this be? We’ll, I’ve been covering live performances and concerts for over 20 years and this group fits in several arts and entertainment categories that strung together, make one amazing show. Last night at The Riviera Theatre in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood a band rolled through town that has not only never played Chicago, but is journeying on their first tour of the United States of America ever. So by now you must be thinking, ok, who is this band? They are Heilung (‘healing’ in German), a Northern European, primal neo-folk, experimental band with ancient theatrics to match their sound, and from what I witnessed, they are the real deal.
New to the scene just a few years back, Heilung (hi-lung) have been scaling the European market quicker than a scared spider up a wall. The band describes themselves as “Amplified History”. I see it as part Kabuki, part ancient Viking ceremony and part black meta as you’ll read, they are quite hard to pigeonhole. Heilung are not traditional modern rock or pop music. There are no guitars, no keyboards, no DJ’s, no modern drum kits, just ancient forms of earthy instruments (including human bones) paired with tribal rhythms and haunting vocals that mimic Tibetan monks. And the lyrics are not even in English. As a matter of fact, they are ancient forms of dead or dying languages from the North. The text a mix of Old High German, Norse and possibly Latin but I’m sure there is more. So how can a musical group take something like this on the road and not only entertain people, but amass a following that rivals K-Pop fanatics? Read on.
Heilung fans are already die hard fans. They have their own chants and animal noises they shout in the concert venue to each other from things like wolf howls to grunts and screams. It’s very primal and taken very seriously. Many fans dress the part. No not the classic black t-shirt, eyeliner and monster masher crowd, no, that’s so 2019. These fans are a mix of Renaissance Fair, Horror Cons and Viking lore (with a twist of David Bowie and Siouxsie Sioux). Some recreating looks the band has made their trademarks and others falling into their own ancient mix.
This show was sold out. Completely. Not only that, but it was moved from one smaller venue to this larger one. Originally, this was scheduled for The Vic. What made this show even more rare, is that it is part of Heilung’s micro tour across the US. It’s only one of five tour dates starting in LA and cross the States to New York. Getting into a city that has one of these shows is hard enough, then getting a ticket into the mid size clubs is a whole other challenge. Fans started lining up as early as noon for a show that wasn’t going to start until 8PM. And this on one of the most frigid nights of the winter season.
With no opener, Heilung kicked off the night with sounds effects of birds chirping and a backdrop of lights imitating an early sunrise or late sunset. The show began with a shaman dancing out from the darkness holding a handheld smoldering cauldron waving bird wings over it onto the crowd. Cherry embers fell from the billowing piles of smoke as he made his way around the stage and front row making his blessings for the show to begin. From there, the band slowly steps out and forms a circle to which the shaman enters and a chants begins. During the call and response, he shouts lines about brotherhood, life and the mystics of the world they live in. To my surprise, the audience responds with answers and repeating significant lines back. This was a ritual. The shaman finishes and takes his place in the back with various instruments and the music performance begins.
The three main players in this group are Kai Uwe Faust, Maria Franz and Christopher Juul. They are dressed in hand made robes with veils covering their war-painted faces and bodies. Fast hand and kettle drum beats kick it all off setting the mood and sending the crowd into a fervor.
To try and describe the music they made during this performance just would not do it justice. It’s not rock, yet fans range from metalheads to new agers and everything in between. The pace is ever fluctuating. You get the fast chants, solo growls, group growls, call and responses and unknown limericks that mystify the soul. The feeling you get from this ranges from meditation to aggravation. There’s a story being told here in the vein of an Old Norse fables. They unfold these ancient Viking-esque tales of what I can only describe as love, honor, sacrifice, evil encounters, death and rebirth stories. They lay it out in sonnets or acts like a play. There were about ten songs performed ranging from 8-15 minutes each. The lighting cues helped us follow along and helped give life to each scene acting as lightning, fire and great battles.
Near the end, a Nordic warrior woman was brought forward and slowly bound to a spear using intricate and detailed binds before ultimately being strangled to death by the tribal leader (Juul). As the scene ended another began and the lead female tribal leader (Franz) came out and brought her back to life.
The show ended with great fanfare as the clan came back together in a celebratory dance that brought several members of groups warriors out into the audience as they crowd surfed and rallied the troops for victory. It ended with the Shaman returning for another sage soaked blessing returning the venue and audience back to safety and our reality.
Seeing this performance live was a once in a lifetime event. Sure, they may come back later but if they do, it would most likely be a festival or larger venue. This was unique because it was a first time performance in a medium sized club as well as simply new to many of us. I hope they do come back. I hope they keep growing and bring more for the fans. If you have a chance to see them on this tour, I highly recommend seeing it. Who knows, it may not ever happen again.
For more on Heilung, click here
For photos from the show at The Riv, click here
Setlist: Heilung live in Chicago at The Riviera Theatre 01-20-20