A cyclist stopped pedaling down Market Street in San Francisco to ask no one in particular what everyone was standing in line for. After a brief pause during which folks within earshot paused to see if anyone was going to answer, a woman finally piped up, letting him know that it was a Heilung concert as she pointed to the Warfield marquee.
The cyclist’s follow-up question was not so easy to answer: “What kind of music is that?” While certainly easy to couch the answer to that question as medieval Northern European folk music, it’s clear that their live performance is much more than that, and the sold-out crowd that snaked its way down Market Street well after doors had opened was already well aware.
With no opener, the house was packed early, many dressed for the occasion wearing horns, kilts, furs, feathers, gauntlets, and war paint. Clearly pumped for the evening, the crowd would erupt in the occasional random “whoops,” and whenever a crew member would set foot on stage, they would be met with rousing cheers. But when the opening ceremony began, and the room was heavily smudged with sage by band members and indigenous people, you could have literally heard a pin drop from the balcony.
Heilung kicked off the set with “In Maidjan” off their debut album Ofnir and set the tone for a remarkable evening. Kai Uwe Faust’s throat singing (think The Hu) was fueled by a steady beat of traditional drums only to be met with Maria Franz’s soaring vocals. The rest of the musicians encircled the wide stage providing percussive, vocal, and instrumental backup. The Heilung Warriors, which made their first appearance during the opening ceremony retook the stage during “Alfadhirhaiti,” brandishing spears and shields as another of the band members picked up lead vocals.
What was truly astounding was the rapt attention that Heilung commanded while singing predominantly in a language other than English, something truly rare for American crowds and underscores the deep connection that the band has been able to establish with its audience and which many fans would describe as a cleansing experience… after all, “heilung” is German for “healing.” And even those without knowledge of the lore of the music could easily pick up on the themes through the incredible performances that accompanied the songs. Truly a mind-bending experience that is surely not to be forgotten.