Tonight, a singer/guitarist named Chris Lee opens and his biggest cheer is when he name-checks David Narcizo, drummer for Throwing Muses (Tanya Donelly’s first band). This tells you who the audience is: die hard fans who remember the days when female fronted indie rock bands were still a novelty.
Tanya Donelly is remembered for several accomplishments: a quarter of the classic Throwing Muses line up; Kristin Hersh’s unfairly overlooked half-sister; founding member of the Breeders; the woman who took 4AD indie pop into the mainstream and onto the radio with the fabulous Belly.
Those are the reasons why I am here and surely why anybody is here tonight. It is not as if Donelly is still a critics’ darling, hip with the cool crowd or even on the radar of college kids. I cannot fathom that anyone here tonight is unaware of her legacy. Donelly has found herself in one of those comfortable rock niches, preaching to the converted but never given an opportunity to find new devotees. She’s been able to eek out a career without ever experiencing true stardom.
Of course, all this is a crying shame. Ms. Donelly is someone who deserves heaps of critical praise and respect. Her new record, Beautysleep, sounds vital and it sounds fresh. Yet somehow it still manages to take in the scope of her entire career. Donelly is to be applauded for refusing to tread water, for slowly and subtly continuing to evolve as an artist; even if this sets her apart from the majority of her audience. She is unafraid to break from the historical indie rut that so many of the fans here tonight are clearly stuck in.
Admittedly, I am here because, as a member of Throwing Muses, she was partially responsible for the most thrilling and formative musical experiences of my life. But unlike the sad blow-hards who have never quite let the past go (cheering just at the mention of a drummer’s name, albeit one of the best to have ever drummed), I am aware that Tanya’s current work is separate to her legacy and should be judged as such, on its own merits rather than those earned a decade ago. So I wait, nervous that the talent has gone and that my memories will be exposed for whimsical nostalgia and stripped of their relevance and meaning. After all, it has been five years since her last album, and that was a disappointment after the pop perfection of Belly.
And then she opens her mouth and she floors me. Her voice melts my fanboy heart. She sings like a schoolgirl playing an angel in the Christmas nativity.
When the 4AD scene and Throwing Muses were at their zenith, Tanya was too often regarded as the cutesy nice alternative to her sister’s dark and scary catharsis. Belly sounded saccharine in comparison to a record like House Tornado. Unfairly, this led to Tanya being overlooked by highbrow critics, and led to an under-appreciation for her work. Seeing her perform onstage, one catches many glances of something darker lurking beneath the sugary surface. Blink and you’ll miss it, but it’s worth paying attention to hear what distinguished Tanya from her contemporaries.
The first song, “After Your Party”, is just Tanya backed up by some wicked slide guitar. It sounds unlike anything she has ever done before and is great. Wanda Jackson, eat your heart out. Kristin Hersh has done an album of old folk standards, maybe Tanya should consider doing a country record? Her affinity for this style is underscored in the final encore when she ends with a Gram Parsons cover.
“Swoon” is a return to more familiar territory, albeit with a heavier arrangement. At first it doesn’t seem to quite gel, but this is soon forgotten as again Tanya’s voice cuts through. This woman is bewitching, beguiling, a pied piper for the lovestruck indie masses. No wonder she attracts such a sad old crowd. Who could give up listening to this voice or resist the attraction of basking in it for old time’s sake?
Donelly’s set is nicely varied mixing songs from all periods of her solo career. When she plays “Slow Dog” from her days fronting Belly, the song sits effortlessly among her solo stuff, standing out as fresh as anything else she plays tonight.
Many of her songs have a gorgeous sorrow to them. In this regard, she saves the best ‘til last. “Restless”, “Stay”, and “Hot Burrito #1” are the sounds of a broken heart being delicately mended. The emotional climax of these encores is an incredible crescendo to an evening filled with fragile longing and desire.
Tanya Donelly will never be cool or trendy, but it doesn’t matter. Everybody tonight is here for a bit of nostalgia but I’m surprised by just how relevant she sounds, how I’m caught up in all these great new songs instead of being transported back to my college daze. As a teenager it would have been hard for me to imagine a woman more perfect than Tanya. Turns out I wasn’t all that wrong.