PHOTOS + REVIEW — Heilung in Clearwater 2023

Heilung • October 23, 2023 • Ruth Eckerd Hall — Clearwater, FL • Photos by Randy Cook —



Heilung | October 23, 2023 | Ruth Eckerd Hall, Clearwater, FL

Review by: Randy Cook

To say that I had no idea what I was in for seeing Heilung perform is a gross understatement. When their show at the acoustically superior Ruth Eckerd Hall was announced, it instantly captured my attention, then life got in the way and before I knew it, the day of the show was nearly upon us. When the approval email came through that I would be able to attend and cover this show, I nearly gave in and listened to some of the material of the band. In fact, one of my friends had sent me a YouTube video of one of their recent full performances but I shunned both the music and the video wanting to go in ‘deaf and blind’ and experience it firsthand myself.

I had read that the band is an experimental musical band but I really had no idea what that meant.  The venue’s website used phrases like “…HEILUNG has been paving melodic paths to the past unique and mystifying sound. Evading all conventional genre tags and the confines of any specific label…”, and …” archaic instrumentation that ranges from rattles and ritual bells to human bones and throat singing, their captivating brand of music is far from primitive…” to describe the band and show. This was something that I HAD TO SEE!

There were many in the crowd dressed in elaborate costumes and some very meticulous face paint that had to have taken some time to apply. I was also shocked to see the line for band merchandise was beyond long, but they had several people working so the line moved efficiently. As soon as I walked inside the seating area I was shocked to see a general admission standing area where normally the first few rows of seats are located. Since my first show at Ruth Eckerd Hall in 1996, this was my twenty third show here and the first one I have ever seen with a standing section. Already the show was off to an unexpected start because as the crowd settled in and we photographers took up our positions on stage left about seven rows back we now figured we would have heads, hands and phones to contend with during our time behind the lens. But after the fact I will say that this turned out to be a non-issue.

As the lights went dark and just prior to the opening portion of tonight’s ‘ritual’, many in the crowd began to howl like wolves. The opening ceremony is by definition a pagan smudging ceremony, with the burning of herbs to cleanse the area and other tribal members. There was a spoken word introduction where I recall the statement to remember that we are all brothers and about unity. There seemed to be an inspection of the warrior tribal members who had also joined in this opening portion which just after this ended I was allowed to start snapping photos. The opening portion was a deeply immersive and theatrical experience, and the show had not really even started yet. 

As what always happens, my three ‘songs’ behind the lens was over before I knew it and I had to step out to stow my gear before I could come back in and see the rest of the show. Even the next day I am not one hundred percent sure exactly what I witnessed but I can share words that came to my mind as I was watching; tribal, primitive, mesmerizing, with genuinely layered sound.

There was such an incorporation of dance and movement, with the members engaging in mesmerizing, trance-like rituals. I could not tell behind the lens, but realized after I was in my seat that a couple of the warrior tribal women were topless on stage furthering the primitive and primality aspect of the show. Behind the lens in the beginning, the lighting was not that great and I thought the warriors were all just covered in dirt and muck which they were, the male members were shirtless also, but, lo and behold, now I understand why the show was ages eighteen and up. 

I am curious to find out what the part of the show meant where one female warrior was singled out and her spear was tied behind her back. Because there is so much other movement on stage at the same time I did not notice how she wiggled her way to freedom, as my initial thought was she was to be sacrificed, as some of the ritualistic chanting would reach a crescendo and I could picture a fake plunging knife into the unwilling sacrifice. Like I said, it is a mesmerizing show and even I got wrapped up in the rhythmic chanting and found myself almost full body rocking to the beat several times throughout the performance. Apart from the spoken word portion at the beginning I did not understand a single word the rest of the way but was mesmerized how a group of people in the row in front of me seemed to know the chants word for word which is beyond impressive as lyrically “The languages used are varied, with German, English, Gothic, Old High German, Icelandic, Latin, Old English, Proto-Norse, Proto-Germanic, and Viking age Old Norse…”  

The instruments were primitive as well, with literal bones used as drumsticks being used to play certain percussion parts. Two large dual, for lack of a better term, jungle drums were at the back on each side of the stage and between those four drums and a large gong style drum behind the percussionist on my left those were the only percussion instruments beyond bone striking bone in a rhythmic fashion. From a photography stand point there was definitely better lighting later in the show and especially when there were fire elements worked into the closing portion of the ritual. 

After the fact I learned that the performers are using a form of Tibetan throat singing to create the mystical sounds that layered and incorporated into and upon the looping synthesizer sounds and wild percussion drums to create this audio, visual and mental sensory sense of unity and one as the audience is continuously dancing in their seats and interacting trance like along with the performers on stage. I was blown away by the artistic aspect of what was obviously practiced choreography, mixed with free flowing ad lib trance dances. My words cannot and do not do justice to the performance that I witnessed. In fact I would encourage anyone who is even slightly curious to see this collective live to NOT watch or listen to anything beforehand just to get that same awe inspiring feeling that I experienced going in deaf and blind to what was ahead of me.

I will certainly keep my eye out for a return local date or in my travels to experience one of their rituals again. Next time I will come dressed a little more appropriately in costume, as I am now part of the united brotherhood, just as was everyone there in the sold out crowd. Fantastic performance!  

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