The evening's 15-minute introductory piece is suitably unpredictable - as hefty slabs of stifling guitar noise permeate the room, the pre-show frolics begin. Eager punters take part in all manner of games - a sack race, a "penguin toss" (where members of the audience are invited to knock over wooden penguins by throwing Pac-man cut-outs at them) and a competition to build a fort from Play-Doh.
With prizes of HNIA's latest opus Fort Lake as an incentive, you can't blame people for having a go. Once the band get down to the serious business of playing songs, you realise that the confusion from the earlier japes has seeped into the set. As the HNIA leader Warren DeFever begins teasing riffs from his guitar, it's difficult to know whether the organ player Erika Hoffman's look of open-mouthed disgust (directed at DeFever) is a reaction to his choice of song, or just a fey expression of disguised bewilderment.
Either way, it doesn't bother DeFever, who sits casually hunched on a guitar case, bare-footed and cross-legged, absorbed in his own endeavour. HNIA's generally under-rehearsed performance does DeFever no favours; it goes beyond the quirkiness that is inherent in their eclectic approach (their music over the years has plumbed the depths of blues, dub, gospel, country and psychedelia, incorporating twisted ethereal harmonies and a whole variety of skewed rhythms, speeds and unusual chord changes). The raw sound fails to exploit their off-kilter eccentricity, which is normally regarded as one of their strengths, and one of their most intuitive traits; the bongos and organ become washed up in the waves of resounding guitars.
It was always going to be an awesome task to replicate something like Fort Lake on a live scale, but there is just no comparison between the two. The gospel singer Lovetta Pippen's soul style doesn't translate well from the album, but the real missing ingredient seems to be the voice of regular collaborator Karin Oliver, who was unable to make the journey due to commitments back home. As Pippen sings This World is Not My Home to close the show, it's painfully obvious that with or without Oliver, HNIA are suffering for their art.
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