Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Live Review - Kristin Hersh

Kristin Hersh: Paradoxical Undressing
St Cecilia's Hall, Edinburgh
20 August 2008

Words: John Mackie

So, tonight's entertainment is in a drawing room, upstairs fromSo, tonight's entertainment is in a drawing room, upstairs from a museum of “early” music. Civilised it certainly is. It lends a restrained and reserved air to proceedings which will permeate into the spectacle produced. You"re not at a rock show or a kegger. You're at a recital. I expected James “Jim” Naughtie to come in with his big headphones and say "Here we are at the Concertgebouw…." My reason for entering this Old Town Howard's End is to see Kristin Hersh perform her “Paradoxical Undressing” show. This is a (mostly) spoken-word deal based around snippets from a forthcoming memoir of the same name. The readings cover such territories as the early days of Throwing Muses, her initial experience of mental illness, life in Providence and reflections on discovering she was pregnant for the first time. She reads out passages from the book accompanied by guitar washes and then intersperses snippets or full versions of songs connected (sort of/sometimes) to the text you've just heard. And certainly on paper it is a captivating concept from a performer who has undoubtedly meant a lot to me over the years.

Christ aye. KH. We do go way back. I first heard a Throwing Muses record in 1988 when I was hirsute and gamine as well as “skint and aflame” and the following year I started a regular habit of seeing them/her live. When I was 17/18 to me she felt like a revered creature from another lagoon, one where people were able to comment on their internal strife and seek insight into why it was taking place. In this land folk searched for a way to “express themselves”. Coming from a "Cultural Chernobyl" one is not accustomed to being around individuals who are “airing themselves” openly or who even risk talking about "internals" in case they might seem to be "making a fuss" or be accused of "being weird". At that age despite of/due to my confused/stifling incoherence I had secret and suppressed yearnings to tackle the weirdness and fuss making machineries which were going on "inside".

It's just this emptiness. I can"t chase it away.

KH was just what was required.

My pillow screams too and so does my kitchen and water and my shoes.

Thought this hardness was a shell. It's a hard, hard hard core.

Home is a rage, feels like a cage. Home is what you read. How you breathe. Home is how you live.

The way she sang these lines and the phrase "This is another ending" in a different tune were moments I used to move the needle to in an attempt to isolate her surges into and excoriation of the words. Listening to her was to hear a form of "self possession" I knew only too well writ on the largest scale. It blew my wee mind) and of course

The house is reeling. I'm kneeling by the tub. Lonely is as lonely does. Lonely is an eyesore. The feeling describes itself.


The more time went on, I started to see what I felt were shortcomings to the lyrics in particular. I guess she was in her teens when she wrote most of these. Precocious stuff but subject to certain concerns and angles that one has at that age which are arguably peculiar to growing pains. For a while I grew out of what she was doing. I wanted fire and ice youth and joy and all that. It never fails to fascinate and frustrate the hell out of me how people can listen to the same piece of music and not only interpret meaning/tone etc in totally opposing trains of thought but also like it for entirely different reasons and pick up on hugely differing facets. Obviously a high number buy records due to the call of fashion or habit but, returning to musical factors with regard to KH, I loved the sense of liberation that was there in her voice. The meaning was there to be seen if you peered in hard enough and if you wanted to make the effort but before you got there you were faced with this magnificent clouded mass of words, of torment and non linear distress, of a sense of hope fueled madness, of words in battle with each other spitting out of a mind way too active for it"s own good. I maybe couldn"t articulate it at the time but there was so much of my experience in what she said and how she said it. The difference being she was able to get a grip on the words for a millisecond or 2 so she could use them. She needed and (often on an involuntary basis) channelled the turmoil, the flux, the rage. It was the thing for me. The music was jerky and seldom stopped changing. Angular. Wired. Skewed. All the best stuff. I have to quote this in full. Here's how KH herself describes the Muses sound in those early days. She sums it up perfectly.

In order to play them right, we gotta play twitchy. In other sections, if we don't play behind the kick, we sound like a giant spaz. We have to hit our notes a breath after every kick beat, even if the passage is racing by at a hundred miles an hour. And they do race by at a hundred miles an hour. Nervous energy is implied in every song; sometimes we gotta downplay that just to make the band less annoying. We don't downplay it for long, though. For the most part, we play as fast as we can, staring at each other, wild-eyed, racing down musical stairs, juggling as we go.

Sadly the more her career went on. I sensed that folk probably saw and heard something slightly different. Maybe they liked the fact that she used acoustic guitar quite a lot. Maybe that was enough to categorize her as an earnest "authentic" performer. Maybe they picked up on how she was prone to occasional stereotyped phraseology in the midst of the mad genius. They seemed to love this type of verbiage the most. The music definitely calmed down and got slicker and less fevered. It lost elements of the frenzy and density and concentrated pain which characterize her songs on the first coupla records. TM closed in on easier (dare one say it) TALKING HEADS (one of my musical arch enemies - "The Observer magazine just about sums him up e.g. self-satisfied, smug") territory at times and the solo records became reserved affairs with a hint of an MOR sound (with outrĂ© lyrics). Something started to go amiss. Her best songs have little roots which I prayed would start to branch out and take her into wild and uncharted territory. That's what I wanted her to do. That was the aspect of her that I always picked up on. I wanted more of that. I wanted the music to be heavier, gnarled, crushing, to be charging after and catching up with rawest voice and thought but they seldom did. The music became reliant on specious concepts of a "simplicity" that is not "simple enough" (it seems to me that “pared back” and “stripped bare” are good… declining to use one’s imagination when in a recording studio isn’t) so that you are left with “neither one thing nor the other” (Bob Cunis and John Arlott RIP).

I still needed the frenzy. I needed to hear the pain god damn it. I'm in pain. "We're all in pain". I need to hear this represented in “my music” (with Steve Race). I can't conjure it up for myself. I need to hear my inner workings reflected back to me by a better person in twisted kinship. I still attempted to listen to some of the solo records. They were hard work for me. Some sparks and flashes but song after song just faded into a jungle of increasingly samey themes, bland instrumentation and straight "all on one level" production and arrangements. I would scream at the Binatone. "She has to push herself!" I also seemed to be surrounded by pals who didn"t get her. I think this played on my mind - "a lot of screeching about nothing", "there's no dynamics. It's still on that same level". This one did hit home. It meandered along. No surprises. No ups and downs. A pretty, maudlin soup with some hints of colour and of feist (with a lower case f). It felt like she tried to measure and rein in her voice. It wasn't strange, shattered, huge, erratic anymore. It was often muted and collared and almost genteel.

This pleased the type of crowd I didn"t want to have anything to do with - Silencers/Carol Laula fans. "Blandness" made her very popular amongst folk who consume per se "singer songwriters" with a vengence. In my mind, Michael Marra began saying things like "have you heard this girl? She"s oh so kooky and so great that I'm going to stop writing wee ditties for the common man about Hamish MacAlpine". Growing appeal from these dubious staid sources became apparent. Collaborations with "celebrities" like Stipe (or "Snipe" as the late great D.Boon once called him (by accident)) didn"t help. I thought of all the people I'd like to see her collaborating with. Mackaye, Bazan, Sparhawk and and and…Come on, experiment, look for something, fire, anger, let's have it. I thought this was edgy music which maybe a few misfits like me (that's Dogs D'Amour isn't it? or is it The Quireboys? anyway...) would get. Fuck, now it's filled with people who dig music which they see as being insightful or clever mainly because they do not put themselves in the position to discover any type of music which is "difficult" to them and have no real wish to discover anything else to compare their “favourite” to. These people are not music fans. The act of listening to music is secondary to "other factors" in their lives which might drive them to put on a record.

The older her audience got she seemed to attract "ultra fandom" too. THE LIFELONG FAN - unchallenging consumption, anorak-y documenting, concerned with the act of "record collecting" as opposed to listening. I BUY ALL HER RECORDS. I GO TO ALL HER SHOWS. I AM A FUCKING AGEING SHEEP WITHOUT OPINIONS OTHER THAN THOSE GLEANED IN MY MYTHICAL GOLDEN DAYS "She's got some voice on her that lassie…" Anyway, ahem, there's a show to review…

It's getting close to show time. The crowd is meagre and mostly just older than me (the 40+ niche). There are some keen as mustards in here. There's a guy to my left recording the show on a video camera. He"s even got it on a tripod! Maybe he's been "capped" by "Beanpole" as well. There is another piece of weirdness going down. Namely the practice of playing what sounds like a mix tape of her own songs over the PA. I tried to consider what the motivation for doing sic a thing could be. I guess that if you come to see a KH show then you"ll probably quite like it if they play her music ower the PA at half time as well but it sticks in my craw the same way that I dislike Iron Maiden's obsession with wearing their own T-shirts on stage. I'm thinking to myself. What is this? A scoffy celebration? A lack of other available CDs? A sales pitch? A granny, a sheep shank or the infamous round turn and 2 half hitches as mentioned in the book of Ezekiel? Something about it made me hellish uneasy.

It does lead me towards a reconsideration of some of the more recent stuff. I think to myself, look maybe there has been some effort, at least to keep moving and to reinvent. The record of Appalachian folk songs she did - "Murder, Misery and Then Goodnight" comes to mind. Some of the tunes played wash over me. I start believing that listening to the whole albums these come off must be like wading through hardened gruel. I long for a bit of danger. I think out loud “could more of her solo stuff not sound more like "Listerine" with it"s massive build up and control and pitch perfect lyrics?” This isn't on the mix. I try to think of justifiable reasons for her mellowing. I realise that my head is getting way too hardcore. Jeez, she got married and had more kids and did seem to find happiness. I really am pleased for her at the moment when I think of that. Not long after that smidgeon of happiness, Billy O'Connell, her man, comes on and introduces her and encourages folk to applaud and to behave naturally! Apparently punters attending the show have been doing the "classical thing" and applauding nothing until the end/not laughing at the funny bits etc. I feel very sorry for Kristin at this moment. I can imagine that she may be flummoxed by such po faced reactions. I immediately recall how much I liked her in the day. Billy is an avuncular chap and no doubt and he sets up one of the motifs of the show by describing that the missus is painfully shy (her performance later bears this out. She doesn’t interact much aside from the readings themselves which she does “perform” rather than just “read out”.

From previous gigs I know that she can be something akin to chatty between songs. Tonight she says next to nothing but demonstrates she is a most expressive narrator who seems to know where to pitch a laugh or a tragic moment (of which there are undoubtedly many) and would struggle to describe/announce the info/advice he"s just supplied. He announces her and she comes on in a low key fashion. The colour swirls start up on the screen behind her. She plucks a pleasant meander on the guitar (which as ever with KH appears to be twice her size) and then starts reading from her "script" on the lectern. It's a good omen to see a lectern on stage. I don’t think I've seen a bad gig performed from a stage with a sheaf of lyrics in full view. I'm thinking expression, ramble, thought, discourse. It starts very well indeed.

The jerry-rigged Jesus on Mr. and Mrs. Bolduc"s living room wall has no face, just a gasping, caved-in head with blood dripping down its chest. He appears to have been crucified on some popsicle sticks. His mottled green and gold surface reminds us of fish scales, his paddle-shaped toes fan out like a tail. It is a singularly gruesome crucifix. We call it "Fish Jesus".

This first extract continued in that vein. A heavily Beat-influenced treatise on a former squat she stayed in once owned by one Napoleon Bolduc. Reading over this I am struck by just how smoothly it reads. It's laconic and downbeat and funny but it has flight of fancy and a glint that I love. It"s a vibrant, fluid piece. Full of that life and joy. Intoxicating. Her speaking voice has a drawl and a weariness in it which is pleasing and rewarding to listen to. She knows how to tell you a story and she doesn't do it in a showy or Vaudevillian fashion. This is a voice of experience but of essential kindness. She finishes the first reading, it would be apt were she to sing the song "Fish" after this and she does. We see a device central to the show for the first time. She does the readings illuminated in front of a series of woozy, washy backdrops. The lights go off at the end of each reading and she sings the songs in the dark. It has the effect of making the songs act as scene changes or chapter headings. It’s like she's strumming a tune somewhere "off" while you gather your thoughts for the next bit.

She sings "Fish" very well. The effect of hearing her voice raised and rasping is powerful after you've heard her speak for the first time in a soft tone. Also the effect in silhouette of the head bobby thing she does is mesmeric. She does try to set up some motifs during the show. The text has a number of mentions to how she stares in front of her in a piercing manner and bobs from side to side too. The effect builds and builds at each interlude until the end when she sings the last song in glorious Technicolor with the lights fully on. The effect of her stepping out of the darkness after the closing reading (which is a positive story involving sandals made from dung (it's true!) re: absorbing the shit in life and getting on with it) is a mighty potent one. She has always had this incredible way of staring straight in front of her while singing (the references to the way she looks on stage complete with the head tilty-ness and stare appear all the way through the readings and act as a sort of plot device link between the music and the text) with the most piercing gaze imaginable. She looks rapt and as if she's held in a trance (another motif of tonight is how the music comes out of her without being composed. It is part of her and as a price it may consume her. To see her at this moment is to believe this is possible).

Tonight she was directly in front of me and stared straight in my direction. I have been in this position at her shows before and it is a thrilling feeling. She is a striking woman. A mix of crippling shyness, inner strength, fire and kookyness with a face and eyes which speak with some eloquence of the turmoil in her life. In one of the excerpts she describes herself as being "short and not weighing any pounds". She is a wisp but there is a real whirlwind within the small frame and to see the sense of oneself bursting out and being conveyed through this act of stepping out into the light is genuinely affecting. It"s the simplest way in which you can say "This is me. I'm still here. I'm telling my own story" It is a highly obvious metaffer and I predicted it's use right from the first note she sang in the dark but man it works. Mainly because of her sheer presence but this helps too- when she comes into the light she sings the song "Cartoons". I have to quote these words to you.

This war's ok. In a sweet old fashioned way. Like a game we play. Guilty of something we forgot. I wasn"t staring. I was just looking far away. Dazzled by something I forgot. Here, drink this down we've been here way too long. Acting this way is a craft I'll shut up soon then we'll go home Covered in band aids and casts.

Beautiful indeed. Look, it's a piece of choreography but for me it was a hellish hellish poignant finish.

So you have a great beginning and end. Looking back maybe these were enough. It's strange tho'. I left the hall at the end of the night feeling saddened and disappointed. On reflection my feelings have changed. I think this is down to having read the excerpts from the book which she's published on the interweb, maybe less than half of which were used on the show tonight. I can't help feeling that something somehow got lost between the page and performance. It is so hard to lay my finger on it. Simply put, it works so much better as pieces of prose to be read rather than performed and listened to in a staged setting. I can't fathom why this is as she has a voice and presence which captivated and in a highly civilized arc demanded me to pay attention. I think it might have been the chopping of the text to fit it into manageable running time for a show. Her word’s reflective canon become constricted through being shoehorned into a timescale. The excerpts she published are far more fully realised and expanded and reveal the power she has as a writer. The style is without mania or frenzy and probably because of this is so adept at describing frenetic and manic moments in her life, of picking through the past clear and cool. The show’s structure is disjointed and the focal points seem to jump all over the place. It's hard to get a grip on where you're starting and finishing. It doesn't appear to have a full narrative and hence it seems to build towards little. Themes emerge and then tail off. I feel that in this format, somehow it needs to be expanded and rounded off to make sense.

Maybe it would work as a simple "book signing reading thing" even. Then she could read selected bits from the book and there wouldn"t feel like there was any expectation of a context or a flow. I do think it has to have more to it to work as an entity like it is at present and Billy did describe this as "a workshop performance", i.e. a work in progress/evolution and one which has been in gestation for some time. For me the role of the songs is uncertain. Possibly she prefers to have the songs so she has the excuse to have a guitar there which she can stand behind for protection. Maybe she feels it's expected of her to sing some songs or the fans won't come along. She's a "singer/songwriter" after all. I do wonder if she needs the songs in this show. I tend to wish/feel that the songs could go and that this show would work better as purely a spoken word piece. She could get more material in and tell the story with greater room to breathe. For someone known as a “musical performer” it would also be a most “challenging” thing to attempt.

She often just performs snippets of songs, something which is irritating in itself from a musical point of view (if you like the song in question then you would want to hear it in full. If you don't like that particular one then it"s a merciful release I guess) and does tend to give a feeling of the musical interludes as being extraneous. One or two of the songs tonight were not to my taste and from a performance pov were obviously knocked off quickly so she could return to the main purpose of the evening. It did seem as if she was on autopilot at these times. I started thinking the "push yourself" thoughts again. Get out of the cruise mode which "they" love so much. Her singing voice was not always at its best. She struggled when she tried some of the higher screamy stuff. The sound from the PA was oddly muted and distanced as if she were just a figure in the dark croaking through a wet blanket. This stripped yet more layers of immediacy and presence from a voice which at it's best is close and ragged and ablaze. Also when you listen to a bunch of different songs from various parts of her career does it show the similarity in what she's done and highlights the (arguably) relatively narrow furrow she has operated in. Song selection tonight seems to be on the arbitrary side (some complement the previous reading and some don't have any obvious connection) and from what I gather has varied significantly throughout the early stages of this project.

Some work - "Fish" and "Cartoons" obviously and there is also a nice snippet of the folk standard "Wayfarin' Stranger" which comes after a piece on a suicide attempt. This underpins and comments on what she's said in a wry yet objective way. The rootsiness removes any chance of the story being purely a dramatic one and returned it to the real in a subtle way which I didn"t particularly grab at the time. Something about this show stays in your mind even if in the flesh you do notice a number of flaws. I'm left thinking again of the shortfall in structure. Some themes were left unexplored or undersold. She hinted at areas such as becoming pregnant with her first bairn but there was little about family life (at other shows she has included material re: growing up on hippy communes. Having read the excerpt in question, this would have been a valuable addition as it left a key area untouched). Even with what was used she does seem to have so much material (written and musical) at her disposal that it will remain a struggle to fit enough in without resorting to Ring Cycle length or leaving out important avenues. Some of it feels thinly spread and threadbare in parts. It doesn't build to a structured end or plot as such either and was partially undermined by the lack of build up towards a finale. We heard loads about the band, a fair bit about mental illness, a quick bit about falling pregnant then the sandal thing and the end which came too abruptly and deflated some of the obvious power to the story. Again using glorious hindsight I would guess she is looking for a written tangential invocation of memories in her past and the show simply is not intended to be a narrative based one. I couldn't see this at the time. All I could think was "she has really lived and I want to hear the story of this life. All of it". She has a campfire storyteller thing going on and it won me over.

The one problem I feel with the writing is the symbolism she uses for mental illness - snake, wolf, bee etc. She's always used these terms in her writing. They get the meaning across clearly and simply but I've heard "an illness of the mind" (including my own) described in this fashion so frequently now that I do find it hackneyed and almost am dram. It's the default way to describe depression and mania and distress. Use an animal similie. "Monkey on my back". "Black eyed dog" (ha!) etc. These were the times in the show when I lost interest and conversely these were while she was tackling the themes I most wanted to hear her talk about. I do feel a sense of genuine disappointment about her use of this kind of terminology. It has something of the “Violet Elizabeth” about it I’ll scream and scream until the bees and the snake go away. Of course if this is not metaffer and she genuinely did see snakes/bees etc well she can only be congratulated for her courage in surviving it all and I will feel a right bastard. I’ve seen some strange things in my time too, I can assure you. Did I ever tell you about the day…?

Anyway the show is over. I feel down about it in the immediate aftermath and the unceasing adulation pouring forth from the tables - the one to my right in particular - does not help. This area provides a standing ovation… from one person. The lady in question was being a little overly keen and chatty with KH on her appearance at the start and she seemed a mite "blocked up" in her effusiveness. Clearly she enjoyed the show but I hope the ovation wasn't dished out in the style of a "lifetime achievement award". That's a load of keech. Music is not about blind consumption and strong brand loyalty. It's about changing perceptions and development of tastes and strong likes and dislikes. I like to live in the now when it comes to applause. I do apologise whole heartedly but I didn't feel this was a show/performance which merited a standing ovation. I had a horror flashback to my attendance at a Stockhausen "show" at Triptych some years back where he received a standing ovation from the assembled ranks of academe/"youth jazz orchestra" members for conning us into paying £30 to sit in a hall while he sat at a mixing desk and played us a couple of his records. I feel confused and stretched. I go home and mope around. Then I read the text which I’ve just heard her “perform” and I wonder what is going on with me, my opinions, my perceptions. I think of these quotes from a source youse have not heard of -

I don't want to forget all the longing for the good things gone bad again.

If you're given a choice you'll go where you know there's a weight that takes you down sometimes.

Everything you do, what does it add up to, move yourself to be where you're going to be when you are not here.

I think I’ve spent my time with KH expecting her to be some kind of dream performer and it seems that what she is is enough to “pass an hour on a rainy Sunday” and to make me greet when I read things like this.

Terrified of people, I found any contact with the outside world deeply unsettling. Yet having invited songs into my cave, they convinced me that I was burning with sound, not frozen with fear, that I should say, look at us. This sound isn't me; I didn"t even make it up, it just fills me. And it"s my way down to where we all are. That's the spark. I didn't really wanna go down to where we all are, but as it turns out, I'm a member of a deeply social species in which the only truths worth speaking are the most naked. I had planned on wearing all my clothes into these freezing woods; songs asked me to wear none.

That’s magic and why isn’t it enough for me? Anyway…

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