all words: William Alberque
all photos: Franz Mahr
It’s surprisingly hard for me to write about the Throwing Muses. How do I put into words the experience of seeing a band that I’ve followed for more than two decades?
I first fell in love with the Muses in college, during that period when I tore through the record stacks at my college radio station like a hurricane, gulping down entire discographies like a glutton at a Golden Corral. Their first song to earworm into my head was “Fish,” which I found on the incomparable Lonely Is an Eyesore compilation by 4AD Records. It was arresting, with its stuttering beat and stunning dream-like lyrics, “Have a fish nailed to a cross on my apartment wall. It sings to me with glassy eyes and quotes from Kafka.” I had never heard anything like it. I was…hooked. They were different than anything else I was listening to at the time – all the ethereal music and industrial sounds of the late 80s.
The Throwing Muses were unabashedly American, almost a traditional rock band, from Rhode Island, no less – there was nothing exotic about them. The loud guitars, propulsive bass, and muscular drumming weren’t that different than a hundred college rock bands. But those lyrics. Dear god, those lyrics! I bought everything I could lay my hands on, and was astounded to find that their album covers were completely different in the UK – a bizarre decision by their U.S. label, Sire Records. Hunkapapa and House Tornado were robbed of the astounding beauty of the 4AD covers, produced by their genius in-house design group, 23 Envelope. Of course, I had to have both versions of everything they did – I’m like that – an unhealthy obsession with completeness that remains with me today.
I remember when the Real Ramona, their masterpiece, arrived at the station. I loved every song on it – even the b-sides are extraordinary – and quickly bought tickets with my friend Brandon to see them when they came through town. As we waited for that special day, news came from venue – the show was cancelled. The band had broken up. I was devastated. Tanya Donnelly and Kristin Hersh, the half-sisters that shared vocals and songwriting duties had parted ways. I was mad – livid – at this dead loss to music. Of course, Donnelly formed the Breeders, and Hersh soldiered on with the Muses as a three-piece. But at the time, I just thought a bit of light had gone out of the world.
Fast forward to 2011, and I’ve now seen Kristin Hersh – solo, as part of the Muses, and as her power-punk band 50 Foot Wave – close to 30 times. I was surprised they didn’t sell out the Black Cat, touring on Anthology – the typically beautifully-packaged 4AD retrospective that came out earlier this year.
It was a respectable crowd, but not as packed as it should have been. Kristin is a delicate looking woman, prettier and shorter than she exists in my memory, mainly because of her immense voice and the intimidating and hypnotic way she stares at a point in the back of the room and sways her head while her body remains stock still. Narcizo is an enthralling drummer – all action, all the time, and Bernard Georges is never less than professional.
The setlist is entirely confusing – heavy on songs I’ve never seen live before, including a baffling propensity for 1995’s University and the forgettable Limbo, while ignoring the Real Ramona entirely. Hersh sets the tone early by kicking off with a rarity from the 1987 Fat Skies mini-LP, “Garoux des Larmes.” It’s like starting a sentence in the middle, with the tripping guitars and amazing, trilled vocals spilling out in a torrent. The gears shift instantly with the more conventional tracks “Shimmer” and “Start” from University, before zooming back to the first album with “Soul Soldier.” Soldier is divided into three parts, with the frantic opening and closing bookending the beautiful middle section – although it makes me miss Tanya’s excellent backing vocals. Still, a great choice, and a joy to hear live.
Then, it’s back to University for “Hazing,” and while I’m having a good time, I’m also really, really surprised at such a minor track featuring live. The three choices from University aren’t even in the top five cuts from that album.
Red Heaven’s massive and glowering “Furious” comes next and is absolutely mesmerizing, with Hersh wielding the title like a cudgel as the massive guitar riffs arc through the air. Then it’s another minor track – Hunkapapa’s “Devil’s Roof,” followed by the forgettable Limbo’s “Tar Kissers.” I’m bemused – I guess she just really wants to play neglected songs from the back catalog – but it’s never less than entertaining. University single “Bright Yellow Gun” has the audience bouncing, before House Tornado’s “Mexican Woman” gets a run out. What the hell? “Speed and Sleep” from a recent self-titled album has me further scratching my head before me and the other instant friends up front lose our collective minds to “Finished,” from the Chains Changed EP. That’s more like it. “With a loud noise, everything breaks, everything falls,” has us all bouncing, singing along. The percussion is dazzling, and the playfulness of the song has me floating by the end.
“Shark” and “Limbo” from Limbo follow – this is really a trainspotter’s setlist – before first album gem “Vicky’s Box” comes in. She closes the set with Hunkapapa’s “Bea,” leaving to wild applause. The band come back out quickly, breaking into the schizophrenic “Pearl,” with Hersh’s beautiful, gentle delivery quietly singing the opening verses of heartbreaking derangement, “I write on your wall, I have no mind at all,” before exploding into the propulsive second half. “Mania” is just that, all shouting and jangling and it leaves me surprised at the course that we’ve traveled over the course of the set.
I want to talk to the band afterward, but I’m a mess – jet lag from my last trip to Europe and a long, long Friday have combined to render me less than my normal loquacious self. I try gamely to get a conversation going, but Hersh and Narcizo are smiling politely while I fail to come up with anything interesting. Fortunately, Muses manager and Hersh’s partner, Billy Connolly, comes to my rescue and makes me laugh, but I’m ruing my failure to entertain Kristin. Ah well, maybe next time. It was a good night out, anyway.