The venue in East London known as Catch does have a catch – it’d be easier to track down one of the Jule lads in June than locate this bar, situated just outside the city’s main financial district in the fashionably scruffy Shoreditch area. Thankfully, the lost late-comers (and there were many) didn’t miss a note as Benni Hemm Hemm took some time to make the transition from tuning their plethora of instrumentation to full orchestral magnificence.
At this point I have to admit that I was rather spoiled by my previous Benni Hemm Hemm experience. I saw them perform a joyous pre-Christmas gig in a Reykjavík theatre late last year with about 15 band members, including a full brass section supporting Benedikt Hermannsson’s whisper-smooth vocals and gentle guitar playing. Sadly, not all of the extended band members were present (the seven who did make the journey to London packed the small stage with a trombone, trumpet, horn, drums and various guitars) but they more than made up for their lack of numbers with a genuinely delightful evening of unique music.
Fight is one of the band’s few English language songs and its down-tempo attitude doesn’t showcase the band’s ability too well in comparison to their grander Icelandic-language songs, despite having some nice poetic lyrics about falling out with a spouse on a grey day. Other tracks from Kajak, their triumphant last album, followed and included the brilliantly bold Brekken plus “the saddest song ever written in Icelandic”, a slow-burning lullaby which was dedicated to the aluminium factories that are irreparably scarring Iceland’s landscape.
When you see Benni Hemm Hemm it’s the little details that make them so memorable: the little zipping sound of a finger scraping against a guitar string as the chord changes; the brass instruments, including the eternally jolly French horn player, gently fading in and out of each song; and the pint glass of dried peas that joined the band. The peas were housed in a plastic beer glass with their own microphone and whenever the band reached one of their many crescendos the peas danced a merry jig in the glass, with a little help from the bass instruments, and added to the sound with a rhythmic rattling. Some were lost in action but thankfully the multi-tasking trumpet player had peas in reserve.
After Benni Hemm Hemm departed the crammed stage to much applause from the modest crowd, the-band-that-nobody-daredto- try-and-pronounce took their place and treated the audience to some lively folk rock instrumental work. Stórsveit Nix Noltes, to give them their full name, consists of two mysteriously beautiful ladies on accordion and violin and assorted members of Benni Hemm Henm and friends on various other instruments. The sound is chaotic, but not overly so, and could be likened to a gang of delinquent Romanian gypsies – who can hold their vodka and still turn out a decent tune or three – running riot at an Icelandic wedding party. Despite not having a single vocal contribution in their whole set, they offered something a little different to Benni Hemm Hemm and something very different to the dozens of guitar-based bands that were also playing in Shoreditch that night.