The week before last, S. and I were on holiday in Cumbria. Not specifically to get away from referendum fever, but we weren’t tempted to reschedule when we realised that it was that week. To their credit, Throwing Muses went ahead with a gig in Glasgow in the midst of it all (if any art can transcend politics, it’s theirs, I suppose. Fuck Iraq, etc. On second thoughts, don’t fuck Iraq). We arranged postal votes, and wondered until the last minute how to use them. The choice: nationalism, or the Tories. The devil or the deep blue flag. I hate flags. And everyone hates the Tories, surely that goes without saying? The idea that nationalism could be about equality intrigued me; that it could be about breaking away from intolerance and the triumph of capital over ethics, art, and learning. Would it really have turned out that way? Probably not. Or, only if our new country could have afforded it. Still, it was sad to discover on Friday morning that Scotland didn’t even want to try. On Thursday, S. and I enjoyed some lovely English things: York’s Goji Café, and Leeds’ Roundhay Park, before going on to the gig. I wrote a review on Friday morning, published and then un-published it a few hours later, because it didn’t seem to chime with the day. But here it is again. And why not? The referendum was only one day; Throwing Muses are for life.
After all these years, then, there stands Tanya, in this out-of-town, anti-glamour venue, with a Gibson SG, in a really great shirt. Black and white patterns, and sleeves in imitation leather, and I think a red band at the bottom. She explains that it was given to her by a local designer, and that it is cruelty-free. Her cellist looks familiar, and it clicks at some point that he is in The Magnetic Fields. There’s no drummer, but the sitting-down acoustic guitarist is somehow operating a tambourine, and there is an electric reverb guitarist to the left, who noodles too much but is otherwise fine. There are a few unfamiliar songs to begin with, which are reassuringly simple, direct, un-kooky. Tanya’s voice is so rich, I’d happily have listened to a whole set like this. ‘Sliding and Diving’ is the first song I recognise, and then she just goes flat out and spoils us. ‘Low Red Moon’ segues into ‘Dusted’ and back again, a reminder that she can do spine-chilling (if not quite the soul-freezing that is Kristin’s speciality), and then — oh my god — ‘Honeychain’. The bass part beautifully played on cello. And all that is solid melts into air. She gets two women from the audience up for ‘Not Too Soon’ as she doesn’t want to do the ‘cat calls’ alone (the ‘neeow-na-now-n-now / la la la la’ bit). It’s great. Tanya’s set alone was worth the journey.
Kristin, too, mentions the designer who has given them clothes. ‘People give me clothes all the time — I wonder what that says? But it’s usually people I know.’ Then Throwing Muses plunge into ‘Sunray Venus’, and half my doubts about Purgatory / Paradise evaporate on the spot. I close my eyes, and the sound becomes an environment; the actual world stops dead. Kristin’s guitar is, as on Ramona, harpsichord-like, harsh, brittle. But loud, breaking up, like you’d never imagine doing with that sound. I think of other Muses shows, and other guitar sounds: painful fuzz guitar assault, 1992 (for Red Heaven); clean and efficient, 1995 (for University); 2003 rubble (for Throwing Muses). She doesn’t vary the sound much within a show, which is very un-pop, but it helps take you to a zone, free of distractions. Likewise the way that it’s usually (apart from 1995) too loud for any purpose other than saturation, obliteration. The run of Purgatory / Paradise material (plus ‘Mississippi Kite’, thrillingly) locks on to its groove, and wipes the audience out. Buddhism is probably like this. I will try again with the record.
‘You Cage’ marks the return of Tanya, for guitar and backing vocals. She takes centre stage, Kristin on her right, Bernard on her left. ‘Red Shoes’ allows her some of that deliciously lazy guitar, and it’s glorious to hear. No noodling. Red becomes you. I become you. It’s basically a nostalgia show from this point, but for those of us who never saw the full Muses line-up, it’s like seeing Orange Juice or The Velvet Underground put back together. And not all nostalgia is equal. Tanya may not be Kristin, but the Muses were never the same after she left. The run of records from Throwing Muses (1986 version) to The Real Ramona are the peak of human endeavour, if you ask me, and worth any amount of revisiting and celebrating. ‘Say Goodbye’ goes deeper still into the rock / pop collision, and edges closer to that Buddhist groove. Kristin stands back from the stage lights for ‘Green’, which I can barely believe I’m hearing. The stupidly high notes defeat Tanya, but for the rest she’s in strong voice, and even if the moment matters most for what it represents, it sounds brilliant too. David’s drums — always the heart of a Muses show — crisp and marching. They get to bounce and slither to a great encore of ‘Shark’, and to rage at full tilt for ‘Pearl’. Pockets of the crowd are going nuts, pleasingly. And then it’s over, and who knows when it will happen again?
Some more fine photos of the gig, by Simon Godley.
Tanya Donelly’s Swan Song Series.