It’s a sweltering evening in July, and Tanya Donelly is about to play her second of two UK dates to promote her third solo album, Whiskey Tango Ghosts. A somewhat low-key gig for someone of Donelly’s stature, it’s unsurprising that tonight was sold out for weeks and the air is brimming with anticipation.
Support act Micah P Hinson sets the scene with a collection of pensive, acoustic songs which thankfully don’t turn the heat up too much but nonetheless raise a few hairs on the back of the neck. With enough gravel in his voice to rival Michael Stipe, it’s hard to believe this Texan singer-songwriter is barely into his 20s.
It’s clear from the intimate setting of Bush Hall that tonight’s gig is very much for Donelly fans – particularly those who’ve kept up with her solo career. Considering Tanya Donelly has been involved in some of the most influential US indie bands of the ’90s, tonight’s gig is very much about who she is now rather than being a key former member of Throwing Muses, The Breeders or Belly. Unlike one of her former colleagues Kim Deal, who’s currently reliving the glory of The Pixies, Tanya has grown up and taken her music with her.
Even appreciating this fact, it’s still a bit of a shock to hear the opening piano-and-voice number Divine Sweet Divide, with its jazz (yes, jazz!) stylings. This, from the queen of angular, choppy guitar riffs! Thankfully, she gets her guitar out for the rest of the set, largely made up of songs from the new album. Although still as petite and youthful-looking as ever, Donelly’s songs themselves have become more, well, mature. Songs from the new album, in particular the pedal steel-tinged Just In Case You Quit Me, Whiskey Tango and My Life as a Ghost, are all very easy on the ear, but as a fan of Tanya’s former bands, I can’t help but miss the sparky eccentricities of her earlier recordings.
Donelly’s trademark voice – contrasting a breathy, celestial whisper with a throaty warble – is still as lovely as it was, but now that her music has softened round the edges, it seems to have lost some of its bite. When in the Throwing Muses, Donelly’s angelic tones perfectly complimented Kristin Hersh’s harsher inflections and in Belly, her voice brought balance to the ferocity of the guitars. In this setting however, it’s just all a bit too comfortable.
However, it is hard not to appreciate the close relationship Donelly has with her fans. With daughter Grace, in tonight’s audience, Tanya’s relaxed and chatty between songs. “Today we went to see the London Eye”, she says brightly, before explaining that her fear of heights prevented her from actually going up on it. Rather endearingly, the story is interrupted by Grace calling out ‘play another song!’ to her mother, which Tanya dutifully does.
The encore consists of a duet between Donelly and former Soft Boy Robyn Hitchcock – a sure-fire crowd pleaser and further proof that tonight’s gig was very much for the fans of Tanya Donelly in her 2004 capacity rather than one of her past glories. And they love it. Which is how it should be.