Katzenjammer is no more, but one quarter of it remains in the iridescent form of Sol Heilo, who played her first (and only) UK gig in several years at London’s Camden Assembly, six months after the release of her debut album Skinhorse Playground ; one that was a sort of test bed for future shows here. She need not have worried; the reaction from an audience that was made up largely of Katzenjammer fans, many of whom had travelled from far and wide, was surely sufficient to convince her that she has a strong enough UK fan base to build on, and quickly.
Heilo has said that while her solo material is far more introspective and personal her live act would retain strong elements of her former all-female band, one of the most explosive and non-conformist ever to have graced a stage, and she did not disappoint. While only two Katzenjammer songs were performed – ‘Rock-Paper-Scissors’, which she co-wrote and ‘Bad Girl’, her own song, it was the way she bounded on stage to open with an up-tempo version of ‘Killing Karma’, a song that is a veritable assassination of an “ex”, in a tiny pair of shorts and suspendered leggings that spent most of the night sliding down her thighs, that set the scene for what was to come.
Heilo spent over a decade co-ordinating thousands of Katzenjammer’s live shows across the globe, and that experience was evident here in a set that was perfectly balanced and weighted, alternating between soft ballads like ‘I Can’t Sleep’ (about another “ex”, one that she evidently misses a whole lot more than the Karma Killer), and ‘Happy Song’ (written when she was anything but) and rollicking full-on pop blasters like ‘America’, which featured a Katzenjammer-style trumpet solo; a song that truly should be resonating around the British airwaves every day but which possibly never will on account of a single swear word. The performance was so awesome that had Trump seen it he would have appointed her as his new Secretary of State on the spot.
And she can do pathos, too. Boy, can she. Halfway through the set were two songs back to back which contrasted the rest of it to such a degree that they might have been part of a different show entirely. First, a cover of Deer Tick’s ‘Christ Jesus’, to a haunting vocal and synthesised accompaniment that made the original sound like something recorded in five minutes in a garden shed, and then a lump-in-the-throat rendition of ‘Closer to the Sky’, almost a mantra to a dying relative she never properly said goodbye to while she could.
In between all this she threw in a version of ‘London is Trouble’, a synopsis of her relationship with the capital that was better than the one on the album and, continuing the capital theme, a take on The Clash’s ‘London Calling’ that you’d be hard pressed to imagine if you didn’t hear it for yourself. Then to top that, a taste of what is to come on future albums in ‘No More Games’, a slow burner that builds to a coruscating chorus and which is instrumentally led by, of all things, a banjo.
No set is perfect of course. It fizzled out a little towards the end when there were perhaps too many non-Katzenjammer covers (for example The Dubliners’ ‘Rocky Road to Dublin’, though it was well received) while there were excellent Skinhorse Playground songs like ‘When my Country Died’ and ‘The Dream Escapers’ which did not figure. One of the songs of 2017, ‘Walk a Little Further’, didn’t make the cut either, though that was possibly on account of a lack of appropriate instrumentation.
There were several moments when instruments needed lengthy tuning too, though that gave the lively all-Norwegian backing band an opportunity to tell a few jokes, mainly at the expense of Sweden. No love lost there.
Sol Heilo has perfected ‘#Play with Sol’ throughout the European tour that ended here, an entreaty to local musicians to join the band on stage for ‘Rock-Paper-Scissors’, playing whatever instruments they have, and without any rehearsal. Potentially a recipe for disaster, it seems to have worked very well and did so again on the night in London. But you do get the impression that if it was to be repeated in future shows the novelty would become passé quite quickly.
These are minor gripes though. On the night Sol Heilo, aided by an extremely competent and tight band, proved she can put on a show of her own that is at the very least the equal of those she performed with Katzenjammer.
It may seem a peculiar analogy but in the week Britain lost an institution, Ken Dodd, possibly the last of the great all-round entertainers, and while Sol Heilo works under a flag that is also red, white and blue but of a different design, the Oslovian is keeping the concept of all-embracing entertainment alive and kicking. Just as it was with Katzenjammer, her show owes as much to the spirit of vaudeville and the Music Hall as anything else.
And with a nod to another of the recently dearly departed, Stephen Hawking, her collective talents are a singularity, while her entertainment value is measured in astronomical units.
And with respect to Jim Bowen, what can one say? She simply hit a bulls-eye before the assembled of Camden.
Photo credit: Mark Ferri Photography