It seems only appropriate that, given the last time I visited this evocative old church venue it was for the spiky, challenging and confrontational female-fronted noise of Savages, last Autumn, that my next visit should be for their obvious spiritual forbears Throwing Muses! Barely 3 years after I, along with fellow Muses uber-fans Beef and Ady, was regaled by a returning Kristin Hersh tour de force at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, we were looking forward to another one. Adding intrigue to tonight’s sell-out show was the presence of former Belly main-woman, and of course also former Muse, Tanya Donelly, as a “plus” on the bill. How would this work; would Tanya be simply support, or would she actually join her former bandmates and step-sister during some/most/all of the Muses set? Would said set include some of Tanya’s Muses songs, always the aural candyfloss to Hersh’s harsh spiky peanut brittle? Who knows with these crazy girls?!
Still a little sore from a chest muscle strain at the weekend, I persuaded Ady to pick us up in the monster truck, and we clattered west into the setting sun early doors, parking up around the corner in good time and heading to the bar, thence bumping into lots of people I knew as we found a spot stage right, near the front, for Tanya’s set at 8.30. I’d run into fellow veteran gig-goer Stuart (again!) who’d given me a brief heads-up on tonight’s possible events, so we were ready when Tanya took the stage, accompanied by guitarist hubby Dean Fisher, plus a bassist and violinist, but oddly no formal percussion. A few slow-burn, countrified openers ensued, driven by her pure, sugary lilting vocals, now a little richer and more resonant with age, with “Swoon” an early highlight, embellished both by some haunting violin and Tanya’s swooping, high-octave warblings. A spooky “Low Red Moon” was flesh-creepingly good, Tanya whispering the verses and giving this old Belly number the feel of a spaghetti Western murder soundtrack. By now she was mining her old bands’ material; a moody, gothy “Dusted” was an odd gallop when powered by Dean’s frantic acoustic strumming rather than drums, “Honeychain” was lovely, and the subsequent “Slow Dog” was a rushing, euphoric delight and the highlight of the set. Closer “Not Too Soon”, Tanya’s poppiest Muses moment, was a little subdued and understated after “Slow Dog” but nonetheless featured some fine vocal interplay between Tanya and guest vocalist Laura Kidd, and was a fine way to end a surprisingly splendid support set.
So, what could little step-sis do to match up? We headed into the uncomfortably hot crowd, stage right, for Throwing Muses entrance at 9.45, bassist Bernard Georges already advising, “make sure you drink lots to hydrate!” and the waif-like Kristin remarking, “its’ really hot… and we’ve not even started!” The set was initially drawn from last year’s sprawling, intertwining 32-track album “Purgatory”/ “Paradise”, which I confess I’ve really not put the work in to get to know well, but which featured copious amounts of the usual Muses trademarks of creepy mood-music, challenging and confrontational vignettes of noise, and odd lyrical stories emerging like little animals from Kristin’s fragile and febrile yet fertile psyche. Delivered by an intense, stock-still and wild-eyed Kristin in her harsh, dissonant rasp of a voice, variously sounding vengeful and disgusted, the new material was nevertheless more coherent and conventional, often without the weird backwards rhythms and off-kilter time signatures of “classic” Muses material. Some “interesting” between-band banter as well, with Kristin, rather tellingly, admonishing Bernard, “don’t tune! I didn’t tune!”, and lots of talk about “ass-towels” (!).
Things got really interesting, however, when Tanya wandered on, unannounced, 40 minutes in, for a creepy “You Cage”, then the storm clouds parted and the sun shone through for a beautiful “Red Shoes”, followed by the jagged guitar of “Devil’s Roof”. “Green Eyes”, sung by Tanya in a haunting, skin-crawling delivery, featured some brilliant backwards drumming from the excellent David Narcizo, then the cacophonous, chugging steam train wall of noise that is “Say Goodbye” closed out the set with the best number of the night, a soaring, searing rendition which transported me back to those 80’s/ 90’s Bierkeller nights, when the Muses were just about the most visceral, incendiary “live” experience on the planet. Wonderful stuff.
Final encore “Pearl” was a stark, austere end to tonight’s marvellous performance, after which a genuinely humbled Kristin remarked, “thank you SO much,” to the devotional audience. No no Kristin, thank you. Really, thank you! Set-lists grabbed, we hit the road bubbling. This was all we’d hoped – and more!