This is going to hurt.
There are five people on stage. This is the first time this group of five people has ever played together in public. If you wandered in unaware of this fact, you’d never guess. This is Hartheim. Only not. Only not.
Tonight they will play just five songs. This, a support slot with Petite Noir, is Hartheim’s difficult return to live performance: their first show in four long months. The last time the Manchester band played live, as part of the Sounds from the Other City festival in Salford back in May, they scored Man Ray’s 1926 short film Emak-Bakia and somewhere within their artfully ragged blueprint, a storm of ideas and ambition was slowly starting to set them ever more apart from their peers. But tonight, they are reduced. Gaz Devreede, their guitarist, their foundation, died in July: a loss as cruel and shattering as it was unexpected. And Hartheim were nearly Hartheim no more.
I met Gaz Devreede a dozen times, knew him barely six months. Compared to those who knew him well and had years of memories to pick through and replay, hardly at all. But well enough to raise a hand and offer a smile as we caught sight of each other across (typically) a bustling bar or venue. Well enough to slip easily and unthinkingly into rambling conversation about the things we shared a love for (Nick Cave, Manics, Wings of Desire, Crime and the City Solution. Dark, serious, cerebral shit. The good stuff, in other words.) Well enough to share a drunken embrace at the end of the night. I can remember the last words we shared, as he and the band slowly came down after that triumphant SFTOC performance: words I’ll chew over, oh, forever. Whatever that is.
He was brilliant and he was their rock but Gaz wasn’t Hartheim. In the same way that Mike Emerson isn’t Hartheim, or any of the other three remaining original members of Hartheim aren’t Hartheim. Hartheim is beyond that kind of cheap definition. But Gaz’s loss echoes around the Deaf Institute tonight, where Hartheim boldly regroup without him. So tonight, Hartheim are reduced. But they are also rebuilt and, as will become clear, augmented. Tonight, they are bolstered by Emma Rushworth on violin and she is not here as fill-in or replacement, but she stands where their guitarist once stood and she is extraordinary, and Hartheim are whole again.
They begin with their towering anti-anthem ‘Yellow’. Where there was once guitar, there is now violin that sings and soars. Rearranged, reforged, it blooms anew. Somewhere within its brooding sweep, you can still hear those chiming arpeggios, but they fade and they’re gone – forever, you fear/hope. This music is forever now something new and Rushworth’s reimagining of Hartheim’s live set staple is beauty and magic. They ease into two new(ish) songs: ‘Will Your Head Fit Inside Your Stomach’ and ‘Lucifer’, but it’s the shifting, bucking groove of ‘10000 Flowers’, a grave and unflinching document of, in Emerson’s words, “our continued fucking of the planet”, that emerges as a new high.
As Emerson composes himself, as a crowd not (for the most part) here for his band offers a deep and warm response, he dedicates their last song to his “soul brother” and Hartheim close the hardest set they will ever play with a tender, dextrous reading of Radiohead’s ‘Videotape’. “This is my way of saying goodbye, cos I can’t do it face to face…” These moments, poignant beyond words, burn.
Hartheim play for 30 minutes but it feels more like two. Feels like a year, like an age. Time blurs, as does that space between audience and performer, and everything Hartheim are – and were, and will be – becomes unbearably, pinpoint clear. Death is not the end. They say. Huh – Hartheim would surely never entertain a notion so fanciful. We’re here and then we’re gone, and anything else is just playing at it. Hartheim know more about the abruptness of this wonderful life than most. Even though their mettle was never in doubt, they’d have been forgiven for caving. But not for Hartheim the easy (or easier) way out.
That hole on the left side of the stage is forever a chasm, a stark reminder that Hartheim may not even yet know how deeply wounded they are, because this life it teases and it mocks. We know so little; we fool ourselves into thinking we know it all. So yes, they could have caved. And we’d have understood because we know, as Hartheim surely do, that we’re here and then we’re gone and we barely have chance to draw breath. But the way in which they re-emerge – so heartbreakingly, so shockingly, so joyously alive – could fool you into thinking we’re here forever.