Gig review: Kristin Hersh at Square Chapel Arts Centre, Halifax

Kristin Hersh
Kristin Hersh
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Kristin Hersh has yet to master the art of self-promotion, despite releasing music for over three decades. The US musician has just issued two gnarled, grungy tracks from her upcoming solo album Possible Dust Clouds but both are notably absent from this short set.

It’s a refusal to play the industry game that’s seen her become a cult artist rather than the alt-rock star that was teased in the early-90s. Back then her band Throwing Muses caught the grunge slipstream with Red Heaven and her debut solo single, ‘Your Ghost’, featured R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe on backing vocals.

Since then her profile has waned while fellow ex-4AD stablemates Pixies and The Breeders continue to command crossover attention. It’s an injustice of a kind but her place on the outside seems to suit her creativity, which has found ever more outlets. This includes forming power trio 50FOOTWAVE, writing memoirs, and being at the forefront of multi-media album releases.

If her music has become more settled over this period, largely losing her restless time signatures, then this career-spanning set proves that she hasn’t lost any of her raw honesty.

Taking to the stage with just an electric guitar, much of her material is lent a fresh interpretation when stripped of additional instrumentation. Opening track ‘Bright’, which is preluded with an arpeggiated snippet of ‘The Key’, reveals a folk influence while the melancholy tone in the bluesy ‘Freesia’ is drawn out when void of harmonies and psychedelic guitar.

Changes to her vocal range also affect the song readings. She now struggles to hit the youthful high notes on the folk-influenced ‘You Cage’ and ‘Gazebo Tree’ but her ragged, hoarse lower register introduces a blues tone that adds resignation to ‘Your Ghost’. It’s a timbre that suits material that’s punctuated by confusion and sadness, with ‘Sno Cat’ and ‘Flooding’ having an emotional intensity that almost feels intrusive to hear.

It’s a passion that ensures she hasn’t got any closer to easy listening, despite the structures becoming more conventional. ‘Your Dirty Answer’ adds an unexpected dynamic twist half-way through but it’s her delivery that transfixes, conversationally switching back and forth between a snarl and fearful vibrato.

That it sounds like a pair of disassociated voices perhaps isn’t a surprise when her mode of composition is considered, with songs being ‘received’ rather than written. As such she attributes two tracks to other people, claiming that the taut ‘Cottonmouth’ is effectively the transcribed conversation of “two drunk chicks at a bar”.

Whether she’s the authentic author or not, the gig is a high watermark to fulfil the track’s plea to “remember me this way”.