The last time I saw a Kristin Hersh solo show was at the Primavera Festival in Barcelona in 2005. She was battling gamely with a throat infection but, ultimately, lost out. It was a depressing experience to watch. Nearly two years later, she’s back with a new album, Learn To Sing Like A Star. Some reviewers have hailed it as one of her best, but there’s little that really stands out. It’s not a poor record by any means, but not one that compares with her best work.
Expectations, therefore, weren’t all that high for this gig. Happily, expectations were confounded. The dynamic of the Fifty Foot Wave rhythm section, Rob and Bernard, on the one side, the violin and cello of Kim and Martin McCarrick on the other with Kristin on guitar and vocals in the middle worked really well on both old and new material. The only song from the new record that shone, though, was the album’s closer “The Thin Man”. The others faded from memory as soon as the last note was sounded.
Grumping aside, there were plenty of thrilling moments. “Listerine”, a bitter lament of collapsing bands and bitter custody battles, was angry and heart-rending and performed with an emotional intensity that most of the new material lacked. Old favourites “Your Ghost” and “Gazebo Tree” were more or less unadorned, but no less powerful for it. The highlight of the night was “The Letter” from Kristin’s first solo record, Hips And Makers. The recorded version is stark, dark and harrowing. It befits the subject matter – excerpts from an actual letter written during her teenage struggles with undiagnosed bipolarity. The new arrangement with prominent strings may have rounded off a few rough edges, but the ferocity was undiminished.
The quintet format is a winning one for Kristin’s solo material. It would be interesting to hear reinterpretations of classic Throwing Muses material done in this way. Tonight’s only song from the band’s days was a solo performance of “Cottonmouth”.
The McCarricks opened up proceedings. Sitting either side of a large screen, the duo played a live soundtrack to half a dozen experimental short movies. Some of the footage was extraordinary, particularly the film/track “Canary Warp”. Musically, the duo sounds a little like a fun-size Balanescu Quartet beefed up with Craig Armstrong-like electronics. They are definitely on to something.