Jokes aside, cult group Heimerini Kolymvites are seriously good

Jokes, extended showtime chat, and other quirky onstage antics aside, the «rebetika surrealists» Heimerini Kolymvites, thanks to their garrulous frontman Argyris Bakirtzis, are a seriously good musical combo, even if their somewhat unconventional style as exemplified by the leader’s trademark croaky, slightly off-pitch voice does polarize listeners. Hailing from the country’s north and consisting of good-natured, mostly 50-something practicing and non-practicing professionals from various respectable fields, the outfit’s part-time approach to music certainly isn’t career-oriented, as both its members and profit-eager record label officials would readily agree. But there is a sufficient mix of conviction, innovative quaintness, maturity, musical flair and deep communication based on long friendships inherent in the work here to compensate for any possible shortcomings from a group that tends to operate loosely. Apparently, Heimerini Kolymvites, or Winter Swimmers, rarely converge for rehearsals, relying instead on over two decades worth of experience, as well as intuition, to keep them afloat. The band these days more or less rehearses as it performs, members have contended, and shows are sporadic, which helps explain the onstage spontaneity, as well as the shortage of new material. And when the seven-piece group does decide to get its act together for performances, you can be sure that a hefty portion of the three-to-four-hour show will star Bakirtzis as the intelligently humorous storyteller – on virtually any topic under the sun! No complaints. The oddball behavior has become an integral part of the total offering from this group that has generated one of the country’s most devoted and enduring cult followings. Last Thursday, the opening night of the band’s two consecutive Thursday-to-Sunday runs at the Zoom Club in the capital’s Plaka district, Bakirtzis – who seems to overcome mild stage fright to metamorphose into what looks and sounds like a natural stand-up comedy act between songs – was at his outrageous best. Early during the set, the Culture Ministry-employed architect, who specializes in monument restoration in northern Greece as his more serious vocational side, politely excused himself from both audience and band to go and fetch a newspaper clipping from backstage. Seconds later, the half-serious, half-farcical figure was back reading us his horoscope, which advised, paradoxically, that he adopt a more laconic stance in life for the time being! As for what followed, it’s a split decision whether Bakirtzis, the talker, or Heimerini Kolymvites, the group which plays music, dominated proceedings. The irony behind the band leader’s horoscope reading runs deep in the group’s unique sound – a hybrid of old and new, or settled and wayward. Experiencing a Heimerini Kolymvites show could be likened to some sort of equally balanced musical parliament of conservative and liberal players. There’s a three-member lobby of traditionalists on bouzouki, meso-bouzouko (smaller bouzouki) and acoustic guitar that provides a backbone of old-school Greek music, mostly rebetika and cantades (serenades with a heavy western influence), which seem quite normal. But, add to that a trio of avidly radical improvisers on accordion, double bass and wind instruments for topping and soloing, and the combo starts getting weirdly wonderful. Bakirtzis, the leader, is placed somewhere in between glancing left and right, and obviously enjoying, as they all do, both sides of this group’s intriguing musical story. It stretches back to the mid-1960s when founding members Bakirtzis and close friend Isidoros Papadamou – the band’s original bouzouki player who departed in 1995 in the only lineup change to date – began playing casually at taverns around Thessaloniki. The two were often accompanied by other musicians, a process which gradually led to a stable group by 1981’s debut album of the same name. It was produced and released independently after record labels rejected the project as «too old-fashioned.» But the album, now considered a modern classic, prompted a favorable critical response and quickly acquired a cult following, drawing the attention of Lyra Records, an influential label with a mostly high-caliber roster of artists. Heimerini Kolymvites have released a further five albums, an acceptable rate of production considering the outfit’s looseness. For their most recent release of new material, 1997’s «Ochi Lathi, Panta Lathi» (No Mistakes, Always Mistakes), the group didn’t even bother entering a studio. Everything was recorded live during a single show. For the occasion, the seven-piece group was backed, on some tracks, by a brass band from northern Greece, Banda Tis Florinas, one of the many side-projects of Heimerini Kolymvites wind player Floros Floridis. The last-named, with his band from Florina, may sound like a man firmly caught in the mesh, but he is in fact one of the country’s most elusive and in-demand musicians, with too many ongoing projects, mostly improvisational, to keep track of, many abroad. Tonight, for example, Floridis will be making the most of his midweek break from the Heimerini Kolymvites shows at the Zoom Club – they return on Thursday for four more consecutive nights – by venturing to one of his favorite little haunts in Athens, the Small Music Theater (33 Veikou, Koukaki, tel 210.924.5644) to improvise with guitarist Babis Papadopoulos. The latter arrived on the circuit with the popular, recently-split Thessaloniki rock group Trypes a decade ago, but, in more recent times, has forsaken his old group’s hard-hitting ways for more atmospheric and creative playing on albums by several interesting artists. Thanassis Papaconstantinou and Socrates Malamas are notable examples. Besides Floridis, other Heimerini Kolymvites members are also active in interesting projects. Bassist Michalis Siganidis and accordionist Costas Vomvolos, who make up the group’s radical lobby with Floridis, are also members of internationally renowned vocalist Savina Yiannatou’s regular backing band, Primavera en Salonico. In more recent times, the two have been busy touring various cities around the world with Yiannatou as she gains popularity. Siganidis has also put out some exceptional, though bizarre, solo work, his most recent «Mikres Angelies» (Classified Ads) being a highlight. Returning to Heimerini Kolymvites, the band did present some new material at last Thursday’s show, and, five years after their last release, it’s about time Bakirtzis and Co to set the clowning aside and their new work to record. Fans demand it!

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