Live Music + Gig Reviews

Kristin Hersh @ Arts Theatre, London

11 January 2007

Kristin Hersh By her own admission, Kristin Hersh did next to no publicity at all for her last solo album The Grotto, released to quiet appreciation from fans and occasional critics four years ago. For her new self-produced opus, Learn To Sing Like A Star, the Throwing Muses and 50 Foot Wave founder looks set to make amends with a full tour and even record shop signings, and tonight’s performance in a two-tier venue not known for gigs was the first indication of her intent.

Playing to what seemed to be an odd mix of people, part industry showcase and part fan convention, Hersh did exactly as she’d intended with the event and played her new album from beginning to end. It’s a meatier, fuller-sounding affair, more akin to 2000’s Sunny Border Blue than The Grotto, although sonically it’s unmistakably a Kristin Hersh record. To show it off, Hersh appeared with a backing band comprised of the McCarricks on violin and cello and a rhythm section comprised a part each of her two bands and herself on guitar and vocal duties as usual.

At showcase events there will be those who bemoan the lack of old favourites, but how else should an artist draw attention to their new work? In Hersh’s case, there are so many songs from her back catalogue to choose from that she could never completely satisfy everyone whatever she decided to play – as the many and varied requests from the audience bore testament to.

Jarvis Cocker‘s recent gigs in support of his debut solo album excluded all his previous material with Pulp and garnered the Sheffield songsmith rave reviews. Would Hersh be able to get away with a similar focus on new material to the exclusion of all else?

When a set opens with a song as strong as In Shock – its lyrics as unapologetically impenetrable as anything she’s written yet its rhythm inescapable – it’s churlish to complain, especially with Hersh’s uniquely melodious, accented rasp in charge of it.

The McCarricks add a pleasingly moody orchestral coda to the piece, and another dimension to Hersh’s guitar-led psychosis sound. There’s more uptempo material with Sugarbaby and Day-Glo, album highlights both. The latter’s core phrase, “Getting up is what hurts,” could appeal to Hersh’s original fanbase of teenage American college students.

The faster numbers are punctuated with a range of tempos and moods. Nerve Endings is an atmospheric, vaguely grungey number that plays like a dance of guitar and violin in a despondent yet seemingly content mood. The hooky Peggy Lee is an object lesson in west coast guitar music, while The Thin Man – the album’s final track – closes the set atmospherically, building from a down-and-out bass phrase.

At one point Hersh remarks that her audience are very quiet, and she thanks them for their attention; an overcome fan shouts back: “No, thank you!” Anyone unfamiliar with Hersh could be forgiven a cringe at such reverie, but umpteen albums into her career it is devotion of this sort that she inspires.

Almost as a reward for the audience’s indulgence of her new work, in her encore Hersh unleashes a selection of back catalogue favourites. A raucous Your Dirty Answer placates and, from her first solo album Hips & Makers, Ghost, sans Michael Stipe duet, makes the best of the hushed venue’s atmosphere. As a tour warm-up and as a showcase, the gig did its job. For completely public events Hersh may decide more variety is the spice of life when it comes to song selection, but fans won’t be disappointed either way.

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Kristin Hersh @ Queen Elizabeth Hall, London