Throwing Muses – Òran Mór, Glasgow, Wed 17 Sep
Cult US alt-rock band put on stellar performance led by Kirsten Hersh
There comes a point, in the course of a musical performance, when the musicians either click with the music or they don't, going from merely playing the song to communicating the song. In a bad performance, it never happens at all. With Throwing Muses at Òran Mór, it happened just after the first verse of the second song.
Those who haven't listened to much Throwing Muses may wonder why this greatly respected, long-running and much-loved band hasn’t had more commercial success. One reason is timing. They emerged in the late 80s, when the mainstream music press was jerking itself off into a stupor over Joshua Tree-style stadium rock, and by the time of 1991’s The Real Ramona, on which the Muses’ strain of intricate, anxious, jangly-folk-funk-punk had acquired enough radio-friendly sheen to be commercial, the world was poised to embrace grunge, which was far more obvious and a good deal less subtle. Another has to do with main singer/songwriter Kristin Hersh’s well-documented but not exactly public struggle with bipolar disorder. The Spectacle prefers its crazy women to be extravagantly, histrionically crazy, in the manner of Courtney Love. Hersh, one suspects, gets quietly desperate in private, and diverts the rest of it into her music, not into mediagenic public meltdowns. Yet another has to do with the fact that this is a band dominated by women. Hersh and her stepsister and best friend Tanya Donelly founded the band as teenagers, and Donelly was the other songwriter until her departure in 1991 to form the Breeders and, later, Belly. They sang about love, fear (an early song is actually called ‘Fear’), panic, disassociation and despair, not out of a teenage wish to seem more interesting, but as if those things happened to anyone, which they do. This goes against the usual tendency of popular music, which is to provide a screen for the listener’s fantasy. Throwing Muses, elliptical as they are, were always too bloodily realistic for that. Still, this is all mere sociology. The real reason, I think, why Throwing Muses haven't been 'bigger' than they are, is that they're frightening.
Not 'scary' in the manner of the Pixies, or Marilyn Manson scary, where you just know he's spent hours tweaking the settings in Pro Tools to get his voice to sound like that. They're frightening the way illness in a loved one is frightening. In Òran Mór, the frightening kicked in during that second number.
Donelly herself was the support, with a set of haunting, country-tinged, gorgeously-sung songs (including a stellar rendition of the Muses' 'Honeychain') that reminded you of how she was always the romantic one in the band. Her songs were usually no less delirious than her sister's, but for different reasons; they swirled rather than writhed, as it were. She was sensitively supported by guitarist and husband Dean Fisher, with urbane cello from the Magnetic Fields' Sam Davol and sparkling surf-tinged guitar from Russell Chudnofsky. Donelly has talked lately about leaving the music industry, and of course everyone should probably leave the music industry, but surely she can't be thinking of abandoning music itself when it welcomes her as much as this.
The headliners came onstage in a comically inappropriate cloud of dry ice, launching into 'Sunray Venus', the ass-kicking, name-taking lead single from their epic current album Purgatory / Paradise, but for the first half of the song Hersh's mic was turned down too low, and she looked like she knew it. It's several years since this band has been to this island, and expectations (and tension) were high, no doubt on the stage as well as in the audience. They began 'Freesia', another song from the new album, and after singing the first verse, with its taunting couplet 'What's the matter, don’t you like / the way it all went down?' Hersh played an ominously fuzzed-up guitar break, then looked up and stared at the audience for a moment.
That moment, for me, was when she came into focus: alternative rock’s very own Death Glare Soccer Mom. Not the least impressive thing about Hersh is that she’s combined over three decades of non-stop, innovative music-making with raising four sons. Her 2010 memoir Paradoxical Undressing, one of the best-written rock books of the last couple of decades, is about a single year in which the Muses got their first record deal, Hersh was hospitalised for the first time with mental problems, and also became pregnant with her first child. That’s the background against which her career as a songwriter must be viewed: ceaseless responsibility from the get-go.
From that point in the concert Hersh found her voice, or rather voices, for she has more than one; a cool, twangy mezzo-soprano that suddenly swells, Hulk-like, into a terrifying, throat-shredding roar. Throwing Muses are frightening and exhilarating in part because of Hersh’s gift for channelling raw aggression. One of the funniest moments in her book is about the first time she and drummer David Narcizo saw footage of themselves performing. Instead of being proud or fascinated they were horrified, with Hersh appalled to discover that not only did she not blink, she also made a hypnotic figure-of-eight motion with her head while singing. ('Golly, that's creepy.')
This was a gig with some tech issues. At one point it became clear, at least to my ears, that Hersh's guitar was wandering out of tune. When Donelly joined in for a clutch of older Muses songs her own mic needed adjusting, and even then she spent some time looking sceptically at her gear, but they kept eerily calm, carried on and even acknowledged it. When bassist Bernard Georges graciously paid the standard compliment about how pleased they were to be in Glasgow, Hersh leaned into her mic and fluted 'All the fuck-ups, just for yooou!' (As the band started the next number, one wag shouted 'I thought the fuck-ups were the new songs!' Jeez, Glasgow, hospitable much?) But as the gig went on, and the energy level rose and the crowd's affection became more tangible, Hersh relaxed her Kubrickian stare, began to smile, and even delightedly teased Donelly about her inability to breathe while talking.
Even accounting for hiatuses, the current Hersh-Georges-Narcizo lineup has been together longer than the original Hersh-Donnelly-Langston-Narcizo lineup, which may explain why, when Donelly was onstage, with the exception of a tense, low-key 'You Cage' and a rousing 'Devil's Roof', the older songs were presented with more loving care than oh-god-we're-all-gonna-die abandon. This was underlined after Donelly left the stage for the last time, and the trio launched into a berserk rendition of 'Big Yellow Gun', which in turn prompted an outbreak of enthusiastic pogoing in the pit, to Hersh’s evident amusement. Georges and Narcizo were brutal in the best way; it was interesting to see the once cymbal-less Narcizo still refraining from using his cymbals on older songs that hadn’t had them in the first place, but on the new stuff he was a powerhouse, battering the hell out of his tiny kit. Georges was an outstanding combination of nimbleness and steadiness.
It was difficult to tell, at the outset, whether the largely middle-aged and tattooed audience had anything on its mind besides either the next day’s vote on national independence or early 90s nostalgia (says this writer, himself neither tattoo-free nor in the first flush of youth) but this band's music has a strange power of warding off nostalgia, and the new album was heavily and defiantly represented. In her book, Hersh compares the band to spinach, 'ragged and bitter, but good for you.' It's true; nearly every band acquires the bulk of its fans during an initial phase of adolescent giddiness, and then starts to shed them during the subsequent confrontation with the need to grow up. But Throwing Muses have always seemed as if maturity had been forced upon them. Paradoxical Undressing contains hints as to how and why that's so, but even their earliest songs refused to wallow in misery; instead, they dramatise a desperate struggle to escape from it. It's another explanation for what Spinal Tap manager Ian Faith would have called their 'selective appeal', but it's also a reason why those who love this band, love them so damn much.
The last encore was a memorable occasion of band-audience communion. ‘We’re gonna take things down a little, maybe have a little singalong,’ Hersh drawled, then added ‘Nah, I’m shittin’ ya. We’re not gonna do that.’ She proceeded to play Red Heaven’s ‘Pearl’, adding that we were welcome to sing along if we knew the words – and to her apparent surprise, plenty of people did. A third of the way in, ‘Pearl’ turns from a sad, bitter ballad into a double-time country-punk thrash, and then a couple of minutes later it goes back to being a ballad again. And so it was that a roomful of people in Glasgow found themselves quietly singing ‘I have no eyes at all.’ Creepy, but magical.
By the way, Hersh still does that thing with her head.
Òran Mór, Glasgow, Wed 17 Sep.