You find us in Leek – which, for the uninitiated, is a sort of prettier version of Stockport (lovely old buildings, nice market place, grand sense of tradition combined with way too many places to get take out, overly engineered vaping shops and unruly clusters of young men who loiter in doorways scowling at you as if they’re unhappy with the uneasy peace that has been brokered and they’d really like to tear your limbs off like the feral wolves they are) – to pay homage at the shrine of Kristin Hersh, she of Throwing Muses and 50 Foot Wave fame.
As we arrive, support Fred Abong (formerly bassist in Belly and those aforementioned Throwing Muses) takes to the stage and shares a short set of reflective, guitar inflected spiky folk – which we can’t help but be distracted from by the fact that Kristin Hersh herself stands at the front of the audience watching, tiny (like a person seen from a long way away) but proper, holding herself with the rectitude of a schoolmarm, and applauding as you sense she will on each night of the tour. Between the support act and her set, she wanders the bar smiling and saying hello to everyone as if they are old friends. This, we think, is what a gig should be.
When it is her turn to take to the stage, we realise she is going to play alone, something we’ve not seen since we caught her on the Hips and Makers tour at the City Varieties in Leeds way back in 1994 (and curiously we have to say Hersh does not look a day older than she did then, despite the fact that 25 years have gone by – we can only presume that there is a portrait in her attic she keeps hidden away from prying eyes). Unlike that tour however which was as genteel as the annual tea-sipper’s slurp competition, Hersh cuts loose at the Foxlowe Arts Centre.
For the longest time, it’s just her and her electric guitar and she plays solo songs and Throwing Muses songs and 50 Foot Wave songs without hardly even drawing breath – and what gets you – as it does every time you see her – is that her voice can switch, in an instant, from the sweetest sound you have quite literally ever heard into the voice of Regan from The Exorcist and you are frightened and want to run away and hide under your blankets. Were she to start singing about how your mother sucks cocks in hell – well, you would just politely nod in agreement and hope she didn’t hurt you (too much).
Highlights included ‘Mississippi Kite’ from Crooked, ‘Husk’ from Sky Motel, and, of course, ‘Your Ghost’, her once upon a time duet with Michael Stipe, which elicits a warm gasp of ‘ahw, she’s playing that’ from the audience. But really there isn’t a dud moment the entire gig. She’s joined for the latter half of the performance by Pete who adds cello to the mix and Hersh’s face lights up. You sense she’s a shy performer who switches into a wild eyed mode when she sings, and it’s a delight to see her dart back and forth between her mike and Pete’s set list as they work out what to do next (and adds a nice spontaneous frisson to proceedings).
In the end – and to return to that Oscar Wilde book we briefly mentioned before – you can’t help but be reminded of the line from The Picture of Dorian Gray that reads: “Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault. Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated.” We (the cultivated, obvs) find the music of Kristin Hersh a beautiful thing – and if you disagree? Well, you’re just corrupt.
Words by Pete Wild