Throwing Muses @ De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill 01.11.11
The last time I encountered these friendly folk they told me how, following the departure of Tanya Donelly (band leader Kristin Hersh’s half-sister, with whom she’d formed Throwing Muses aged 14), they’d considered changing the name. Bassist Bernard Georges was especially fond of the suggestion Gato Noir, deliberately mis-translating it as “dark cake”. The decision not to means we can all be here in moonlit Bexhill-on-Sea to celebrate the silver jubilee of perhaps the most unique of all rock bands (and its inevitable retrospective double CD), rather than ‘merely’ a rare concert by Kristin’s Dark Cake, wondering if they’ll play any Throwing Muses songs. But cake, cats or muses, this band has been a game of two halves: the current line-up of Kristin, Bernard and eternal drummer David Narciso, is now not only the longest-running one but has, despite being mostly in hibernation since 1996’s Limbo, also managed to release more music than the original four-piece, even before the promised new 38-track album comes out early next year.
My gig companions and I are all longtime fans, but even after a car journey filled with Kristin stories and nerdy song analyses we each confess to a sense of not-quite-real-ness about the occasion, which is only enhanced by the surroundings: the De La Warr Pavilion is a slice of Titan randomly glued to the sea-facing edge of a sleepy Sussex retirement town; the moon, clear and bright, picking out little nooks where surely lurk Vonnegut’s sirens. And as the band hits the stage the effect is reinforced rather than dispelled: the lighting is as unflinching as the sound, the band as thunderous and tight as they look relaxed and confident, treating us to a mix of songs slanted slightly towards the trio material, but with enough oldies like ‘Garoux des Larmes’ and ‘Bea’ to instill big grins and spazzy dance moves.
Alas, for some reason Muses Mk.I songs don’t quite translate to Dark Cake. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why. David has thankfully resisted the temptation to tinker with those “wrong” drum parts, and Bernard has the awry funk* of original bassist Leslie Langston off pat, though his five-string bass pounds where Leslie’s would pad. I do occasionally miss Tanya – the second half of ‘Soul Soldier’, especially, pines for her vocal stretto and David Gilmour slide – but, toned and soaring on the later material, Kristin’s guitar here sounds scratchy and thin, her voice only reaching the expected fever pitch during the fearsome final section of ‘Vicky’s Box’. Maybe it’s simply that where the first Muses incarnation was a tornado careening through a museum of weird inventions, the trio is an actual rock band: taut, muscular, and a just little more conventional; Tool rather than Gong.
For University and Limbo are two of the most consitently excellent, and most overlooked, records Kristin Hersh has been involved with, if not quite such a series of Rorschach blots. The two singles from that period, ‘Bright Yellow Gun’ and ‘Shark’, make sense tonight as coiled rock vignettes, while ‘Limbo’ itself simmers with malevolence, Bernard’s nomeansno-like bass ostinato – pacing out the slowest seven beat ever – fills the room with a thousand scinillating overtones while Kristin acts the perfect guitar heroine. And when they strike up ‘Pearl’ from the transitional album Red Heaven, the audience’s instant appreciation causes Kristin to stop the song and exclaim in mock-wonderment: “You even bought that record?!” A mini-prog-adventure grafted into the middle of an porch-swing murder ballad, ‘Pearl’ sums up everything that’s right about tonight and about Dark Cake. Kristin is not a born lead guitarist, she’s a chord freak, but the trio format has forced her to learn to channel her inner Brian Molko; nowhere do her melody lines – unsmoothed by Santana slickness but so far from Van Halen widdle or Lifeson squiggle – shine brighter than these two minutes of incandescence, showing that the evolved Throwing Muses is a mighty force indeed, worthy of the name and the legacy.
* Yeah, I stole this from a Sounds or Melody Maker review of yore; can’t remember whose, but its correctness has stuck with me. Post a comment here to claim your reward.
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