Throwing Muses - Manchester Club Academy
Grown men weep. Women, too, but it’s the male of the species who rule the vast expanse of uber-geekdom claimed in the First Indie Pop Wars (1986-93.) Out they come in their droves tonight to pay homage to the sometime queen of US alt-rock. The Church of Hersh is packed and on its knees from the off. A deliberately awkward start (the percussive tumble of ‘Soul Soldier’) is no obstacle to rapture. Guy stood next to me sports a faded Hunkpapa tour shirt, and it confers unquestionable status on its owner. (I secretly, quietly trump him, with a clear memory of turning my nose up at that particular merch stall due to lack of tour dates on the back.) Eyes meet. “Manchester?” I say. “Yeah, you?” I have to hold back but the truth will out: “Nottingham. And Leicester.” An impasse. One last throw of the dice for Mr Hunkpapa Shirt as he says “Were you at The International?”
Jeez. Even knowing what this means confers some kind of honorary status, almost as good as being there. But I was there for that debut UK tour, 1988, in a Manchester venue that bit the dust long ago, playing with a support band who would go on to outsell them by a billion to one, and I cannot lie. “With the Pixies? Oh yes. You?” Daft question. A smile shared, a handshake and a comradely acknowledgement of our place in the quietly smug order of things: one’s position in the world determined by how much time you’ve assigned to standing in scummy dives having your ears destroyed by bands no-one’s heard of.
It should come as no real surprise that the ineffably female thrust of this redoubtable canon appeals more to us blokes. Fate decrees that we spend our lives listening to the trials and tribulations of our women-folk, flailing around pathetically for clues as to how to just best respond, never mind fixing the damn problem. And here was a body of work that, certainly for those first few albums, shone a laser into the dark heart of domestic breakdown and personal torment with un-shaking precision and horrific candour. Men, ultimately useless at most things but still underrated as listeners, expert bringers of empathy, are designed to be reactive. Hey, wrap it all up in a sack-full of songs that fired logic to the moon, propelled by guitars that danced like snakes and bad-ass, unreadable percussion, and how were we ever going to resist?
So, 2011, and here they are, still. We should give thanks properly, or at least erect something in a public garden. In 1989, as that original four piece, when Kristin and Tanya peddled their la-la space ditties to crowds that were drawn in as part of a genuinely left-field alternative scene (as opposed to its mid-90s onwards, post-Indie Wars, watered-down version), they were a vicious fireball, their objective to dislodge your head as much as unsettle your delicate sensibilities. Tonight, that ribald thrust of yore manifests itself in a presentation distinctly more serene, a performance guided by steely focus and not youthful jibber-jabber.
Kristin, 25 years now fronting her effortlessly unique band, looks not much older than when she started. Same goes for Dave Narcizo, a flurry of arms, Kali come to life behind a drum kit. And stage right, Bernard Georges, the coolest man alive. (He doesn’t look up from his fret board all night and you just have to forgive him such focus. Realisation dawns: he may well be the best bass player I’ve ever seen.)
The set list blows up a storm and detours intriguingly from the recent Anthology. Absolutely nothing from their artistic peak House Tornado - too dense and multi-layered to pull off as a three piece? Ah well. I’ll live. Instead, there are oddball classics from the fringes. ‘Hate My Way’ continues to defy logic and mix the unsettling and the delicately beautiful: there are cheers for its unmistakeable opening bar. There are more cheers for ‘Vicky’s Box’, another gem from that eponymous debut, the hardcore spotting its arrival from Narcizo clicking his sticks to cue the band. Probably.
A trio of smart cuts from the underrated Hunkpapa thrill. ‘Devil’s Roof’ is teased out on acoustic guitar, respite from the onslaught. ‘Bea’ and ‘Mania’ stomp it into the ground; the former a real, genuine shock and still one of the back catalogue’s absolute jewels. The latter removes what’s left of the oxygen from the room. (Kristin turns down the offer of a towel as the temperature rises: “I don’t sweat…I gleam.”) Everyone is on cue for the “Electrify your head!” bit. It’s REM’s “Leonard Bernstein!” for the more discerning sing-along. Alongside the old stuff, there is much from the past decade, a continuing vein of creativity that runs alongside the twin distractions of solo work and noise off-shoot 50 Foot Wave.
Twenty-odd songs, all told, confirm the Muses’ middle age health and youthful good shape. No ‘Two Step’ to close the evening (too predictable) but we get ‘Say Goodbye’, a crunching ‘Furious’ and silence descends for a spookily acoustic ‘Fish’. We miss Tanya, of course. We always do and, I suspect, we always will, despite this generation's growing penchant for re-formations and album-specific re-treads. No matter. This trio, as comradely an outfit as ever stepped on a stage, is Throwing Muses, has been for nearly twenty years now. Every now and then - but you have to look for it these days - Kristin bobs her head from side to side, cobra-like, that once-trademark tic, and you’re swept back to those early days, as they gleefully punctured conventions and ventured out into the scene, the industry, the world with only their crazy and uncompromising ideas and ideals to guide them. Yet, here they are, still, playing these songs, with the benefit of age and experience, not so much like their lives depended on it… but, maybe, like ours do. And me, I ain’t arguing.