It’s about the midway point of the gig, and Solveig Helo of Katzenjammer stands centre stage, her diminutive figure elevated by her tumble of wildly decorated blonde hair and a voice far, far exceeding her size. She’s yelling out an introduction to her bandmates – usually a quick and concise process for any band during a gig – but this is beginning to take some time. As she reaches each fellow member in turn, Helo is detailing the instruments each will be playing this evening, and the list, it seems, is endless. “On Mandolin, Accordion, Guitar….Glockenspiel…have I forgot anything? Ah Harmonica! This is Anne” She moves on. “And on the Keyboard, Drums, Trumpet….” You get the picture.
A Katzenjammer gig is really quite something. I first caught sight of them at the Cambridge Folk Festival several years ago, where they had a mid-afternoon crowd of pot-bellied beardy types inadvertently slopping cider over the heads of gleeful youngsters at their feet, so I had no doubt about their ability to please a crowd of any age or musical persuasion. I was however intrigued to see how a band so perfectly suited for a short, sharp festival show, could translate that into a longer show of their own. A sold out Cambridge Junction suggested there were plenty who already knew the answer to that, and so it transpired.
Proceedings began with a peculiarly absorbing opening set from ‘Jasper in the Company of Others’, who having appeared to have lost the ‘others’ at some point along the way, performed alone and nonetheless got the evening off to an enjoyable enough start. Folk ditties of love and drunkenness preceded an odd mix of covers to close – Paul Simon, Johnny Cash and Beyonce somehow seemed to work – and there was no doubt that Jasper had succeeded in his goal of warming up what was by now a boisterously vocal crowd.
And that’s the way it stayed. As Katzenjammer launched into a rendition of ‘Rock, Paper, Scissors’ to open their set, the Cambridge crowd replied with gusto, and so began a two hour sing-along. This was their 10 year anniversary tour, and a back catalogue of three albums and hundreds of live shows means they’re armed with an enviable array of crowd favourites. Despite enjoying widespread success on the continent, they’re very much a cult band over here – albeit one with a seemingly large following – and as such, the gig makes for an intense evening. There’s no part timers here, no half arsed attendees, everyone is going all out. The all female Norwegian foursome certainly throw their all into the gig; bounding around stage, giving out Nordic shrieks at will and interacting with the crowd through out. To intensify their endearment, they spoke of their love for the Folk Festival (that will always win you friends in Cambridge), preceded the excellent ‘Lady Grey’ with heart wrenching tales of frail old ladies in nursing homes, and even went so far as to confess, quite sincerely, that their music did in fact have miracle healing powers. Impressive stuff.
By their own admittance, this is a group that’s pretty impossible to pigeon hole into a genre, and the set list did nothing to dispel this. As the tempo of the gig swept back and forth, musical styles came and went on a whim. We were treated to hints of Celtic folk and lashings of Gallic pomp, mandolin led folk ditties and irresistible Europop, and as such, you never quite knew what to expect. After a pulsating start by way of ‘Rock, Paper, Scissors’, ‘To the Sea’ and the frantic ‘Der Kapitan’, the lights dimmed and the evening entered a more brooding stage. ‘Driving After You’, the title track of their latest LP ‘Rockland’ and especially ‘God’s Great Dust Storm’ all highlighted the exceptional vocal abilities of all on stage – it was almost theatrical at times – and as varying lead vocalists bowed and took the applause after each number, It was evident there is a a genuine satisfaction and pride in their work.
For all the variation however, Katzenjammer are undoubtedly at their best when at their most chaotic. Spread across the stage they make a fearsome sight when in full flow. Armed with instruments such as the triangular Balalaika – a three stringed guitar of Russian origin which looks more like a medieval weaponry rather than something you play – the growling vocals of Marianne Sveen and an infectious energy, there’s little you can do but submit and let yourself be carried away. After that atmospheric middle section, interspersed with a wonderful mandolin driven cover of ‘London’s Calling’ amongst others, the closing stages of the evening did exactly that. ‘Demon Kitty Rag’ and its hints of cabaret had the room on the move again, before the infectious Trumpet hook of ‘A Bar in Amsterdam’ ramped things up a notch further. It was breathless by this point, and after a final frenetic encore and an emotive Bataclan influenced dedication, the band took their final plaudits and held their many instruments aloft to the deafening backdrop of ‘Crazy Nights’ by Kiss. It couldn’t have been more apt.
Words from Ally Gale