Monday, August 18, 2008

Kristin Hersh – ‘Paradoxical Undressing’, St Cecilia’s Hall, Edinburgh, 17th August

A man who must be Billy, Kristin’s husband and manager, takes to the low stage in a twilit room with an oval roof and an oval skylight. There is a lectern and a large white screen, which will be used for back projections of paintings (by Molly Cliff-Hilts, says the programme). He does some diffusing, tells us we can clap or laugh if we like, or not if we don’t. Leaving the stage, he attracts some applause himself and puts a stop to it: ‘Don’t clap.’ Which is funny, but I wonder why he feels the need to tell us these things? She’s only going to be reading book extracts, surely? There is a book in the works, with the same title as this show, both being ‘inspired by my teenage diaries’. Something like her appearance on Powell’s Books’ ‘Bookcast’, maybe? Her funny and deliberate prose in her deep and rich voice, some scary songs (I listened to this again at lunchtime today – what is the point of being disarming with people, I thought, if you’re going to lay them out cold with ‘Delicate Cutters’ afterwards? Hanging up my coat as I arrived back, putting my tears away). But no. Nothing like that.

She is dressed in white with a black guitar. Electric, but it sounds deep, warm and half acoustic. She plays the whole way through, more languidly than you’d imagine she could – The Grotto is the closest her recorded playing comes to it. The few repeated chords conjure up a spaghetti western desert. She starts to read: ‘The handmade Jesus on Mr and Mrs Boluc’s living room wall has no face, just a gasping, caved-in head with blood dripping down its chest.’ The online text has ‘jerry-rigged Jesus’, which is even better. Her voice doesn’t take you too far from the western idea, this could be the preamble to some lawless tragedy. I close my eyes for the first few minutes, because I can’t breathe, I can’t leave… but that’s not quite it, it isn’t suffocating. There is something in Kristin’s performance, running through it, the whole thing, comparable to whatever it is that runs through her early records. It’s not something that has been consistently present in her work for a long time, though there have always been flashes. A man made of butter fat careening around on a sno cat. It isn’t the same, it’s older, less fraught. It is placid and it is hurt. It is powerful and affecting but it is not oppressive. This is a surprise: the feeling of being belted around the head by ‘Vicky’s Box’ slowed and withstood, brought under control. It is a good and a positive thing.

Songs are interspersed with the readings, ‘Fish’ first, which as an early song you might expect, also ‘Hook in her Head’, vicious, drained of its pop. Then ‘Slippershell’, a much more recent song (from this year’s series of downloads), but it fits in so well. This was another surprising thing: how cohesive Kristin’s songs are, how well songs from different records go together, given a bit of explanation. She describes various animal hallucinations (her arm as a snake, the wolves that made it into ‘Mania’), including some ‘mechanical bees’, before singing part of ‘Buzz’. There are the people living around and about whilst the Muses got under way – junkies and painters (she prefers the junkies), interchangeable house mates, and an old forgotten film star who was somehow at college with Kristin, comes to her shows with her priest and insists that she must flirt with her audience. There is a dream-like description of a car crash, in which her foot falls off and her face becomes a hamburger (‘I’d ask her to help find my foot, but who would want to help someone with a hamburger for a face?’) The biggest laugh of the evening goes to the line ‘Camel shit shoes – don’t wear them in the rain!’ It’s a funny show. Also surreal, sad, spooky. 24 hours later I’m still tingling. And feeling for the first time that I have witnessed something as uncontrollably great as those early Muses records. Totally fucking unmissable – you have until next Saturday to catch the Edinburgh run.

3 comments:

horsemeatpie said...

Seconded. A great, if at times eviscerating, performance.

When I got home last night, I tried to work out how that show, with its unconventional format, so late in a career, could have been the best Kirstin show I've seen. I'm still not sure; regardless: it was the warmest trauma I've ever been party to.

Chris said...

Note to horsemeatpie: it's Kristin, not Kirstin.

Note to self: they were 'elephant shit sandles', not 'camel shit shoes'.

Piebird said...

Note to English graduate: it's "sandals", not "sandles"...

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