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LIVE REPORT: Throwing Muses & Tanya Donelly
Sean Kitching , October 3rd, 2014 16:20

Sean Kitching reports form the Islington Assembly Halls in London

Photo by Rockman Of Zymurgy

I first saw Throwing Muses 26 years ago at the Town And Country Club in Kentish Town (currently the Forum), on 1 May 1988. They were supported by The Pixies who were playing only their second ever date in the capital. My friends and I were all 18, in between completing our A levels and waiting to see which universities would take us when our grades came through. Their mini LP Come On Pilgrim had come out the previous September and Surfer Rosa about a month prior to the gig. John Peel had been playing the hell out of both of them, which is how my friends and I had learnt of their existence despite our isolated, small town (don't ask) existence up until that point. Thanks to Peel we all knew Throwing Muses too, mainly the first album and their track 'Fish' from the classic 4AD sampler Lonely Is An Eyesore, but really we were all there first and foremost for Pixies.

As events transpired, however, although Pixies were good, it was Throwing Muses who were the revelation. In comparison to the complex, martially inspired cymbal-less drumming provided by David Narcizo, Lesley Langston's heavy, dub derived bass, the twin attack of Kristin Hersh and stepsister Tanya Donelly's guitars, and of course the combination of their incredible, unique voices. Pixies seemed a rather more straightforward proposition by comparison. Pixies were undoubtedly cool, with their references to Luis Bunuel's Un Chien Andalou ("Got me a movie/I want you to know/Slicing up eyeballs") but Kristin Hersh radiated a genuine sense of danger and otherness and left you with little doubt when delivering lyrics like, 'I have a fish nailed to a cross/On my apartment wall/It sings to me with glassy eyes/And quotes from Kafka' that she actually meant it.

That Throwing Muses were predominantly a female force of nature, way before PJ Harvey or Riot grrrl happened, also made them a far more intriguing prospect. When the Muses and Pixies played the same stage at Glastonbury in 1989, I thought exactly the same thing. To be honest, I lost interest in Pixies not long after, but my love of Throwing Muses never really went away, even when they did. Which is why, when I heard news of the upcoming tour with Tanya Donelly supporting, I knew I had to attend. Whilst it's not my intention to ignite any lasting argument as to who were the better band (ultimately that's a matter of personal choice), I do feel motivated to make the comparison for a number of reasons.

First of all, that was my own honest experience of the two bands. Secondly, when I mentioned that I was going to see a reformed Throwing Muses playing to people in passing conversation, for most the news only became relevant when I mentioned that at one time Pixies had supported them, and that strikes me as quite simply unjust. Lastly, although I'm trying my best to be diplomatic here, I don't seriously expect much valid argument when it comes to the quality of the excellent new Throwing Muses album Purgatory/Paradise when held up next to the Pixies' most recent efforts. Wherever you stand on the Muses, one thing's for certain - they're sure no Indy Cindies.

By the time Donelly takes to the stage for her support slot, the pleasantly old-fashioned interior of the Islington Assembly Hall is jammed full with music fans of varying ages. This is the second of two sold-out nights, and if it weren't for my Quietus connections, I'd likely be on the street outside trying desperately to source a ticket. A veteran of not one, but three seminal bands (Belly And The Breeders, as well as The Muses), time appears to have been exceedingly kind to Donelly, whose trademark blonde bob and beatific smile are as welcome a sight as ever. Backed by two guitarists, both acoustic and electric, and Magnetic Fields collaborator Sam Davol on cello, Donelly's voice is utterly captivating against the sparse, country tinged instrumentation against which it is set. It's been some time since I've seen her perform but I'm instantly reminded why she's always been one of my favourite female vocalists, and I'm undoubtedly not the only person in the room pleasantly melting due to her voice's sublime effects. Opening with the lovely 'Meteor Shower' and 'Mass Ave' from the 2013 E.P. Swan Song Series Vol 1, Donelly runs through a hugely uplifting greatest hits set that delivers bewitching renditions of Belly classics 'Low Red Moon,' 'Dusted' and 'Slow Dog' as well as Throwing Muses songs 'Honeychain'  and 'Not Too Soon' from their 1991 album, The Real Ramona.

Unsurprisingly, 'Slow Dog' receives the most rapturous applause of the night so far, the audience competing with Donelly for sheer volume during the chorus. It's a perfect pop song–its gnarly, almost atonal guitar riff undercutting the  otherwise sugary confection with just the right amount of bittersweet aftertaste.

The current power trio incarnation of Throwing Muses take to the stage after a short interval and it becomes immediately apparent that Kristin Hersh has lost none of her inner fire as she launches into last single 'Sunray Venus,' ably backed by Bernard Georges on bass and David Narcizo on drums. Hersh's ambivalence towards her art is well documented (with her describing her music in a recent interview in the Guardian as "an entity that walks into the room [...] a gift as well as a curse [...] it probably would have been better if I lived without it") but her compelling presence onstage never wavers for a moment. Past comparisons to Patti Smith channelling Sylvia Plath are not unwarranted and it's difficult to think of another contemporary artist who has been as successful in turning such severe inner turmoil into a creative force as dynamic and powerful as this.

The first half of the set is devoted entirely to songs from 2013's Purgatory/Paradise, their first release in ten years, which was rightly hailed by critics as a triumphant return. Ambitiously released as a 64 page book with accompanying CD of 32 tracks, Purgatory/Paradise contains its fair share of quietly beautiful moments but is also largely driven by an angry intensity that recalls Red Heaven or Limbo. Hersh heaps bile upon "the Hollywood Martians" in 'Mississippi Kite,' her words as ever, simultaneously oblique yet with an instant sense of impact that carve out their own meaning with powerfully poetic images. Milan, a song about the destruction of Hersh's house in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, begins: "What makes you gold-flecked?/You talk backwards, like I do/Hold still, your cold voodoo/Just smacked her upside the head/Blood squeezed through your veins/You wear memories as false pain/Who better than you/To bless her, baptize the dead?' It's powerful stuff, far beyond the quality of most band's come back albums after such a lengthy hiatus.

Following the short, elegiac 'You Cage,' from the 1987 mini-LP The Fat Skier, Donelly finally joins her stepsister onstage. Donelly left the band after The Real Ramona in 1991, so it's entirely apt that the first song they play together is 'Red Shoes' from that album. From the moment Donelly's guitar and backing vocal rejoins the Muses' sound, it's impossible not to think that the band are improved by her presence. I mean this as no disrespect to Kristin Hersh, who in any case wrote the vast majority of Throwing Muses' songs, but by this point I'm working on the theory that the addition of Tanya Donelly would vastly improve even the poorest of bands, let alone one already as great as this. As David Narcizo picks up the wonderful offbeat that drives 'Devil's Roof' from Hunkpapa, the crowd respond with gleeful abandon. Throwing Muses with Tanya Donelly are more folky, soaring and spacious, more dreamlike without losing their sense of danger and darkness. 'Green' from their eponymous debut LP is a triumphant, transporting moment that brings me right back to that time 26 years ago when first I saw them, and 'Say Goodbye' features the stepsister's voices entwined and at their complimentary best.

Although that's it for Donelly's contribution for the evening, the Muses keep right at it, running through the driving 'Shark,' 'Bright Yellow Gun,' 'Bea,' and finally 'Pearl' from Red Heaven. The audience troop out into the night, drained but empowered by an incredible performance. It's been over 20 years since I've seen Throwing Muses play and yet their potency seemed entirely undiminished. I'm hoping it won't be so long until next time.

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