It’s possible to pinpoint the moment Throwing Muses’ set at Leeds Irish Centre goes from being good to gut wrenchingly mesmerising.
The opening notes ring out from ‘Mississippi Kite’, a cracked blues tune from frontwoman Kristin Hersh’s solo album Crooked, and her beautifully ravaged vocals enter with such raw emotion that it becomes hard to breathe.
This is some achievement given the previous six tracks, drawn from current album Paradise / Purgatory, have been varying degrees of intense. The barely restrained fury of ‘Static’; the fractured psychedelia of ‘Lazy Eye’; and the languid hypnoticism of ‘Dripping Trees’ for instance all have the same sense of confusion and vulnerability that characterise a career that spans three decades.
During this time the band has gone from being a quartet defined by unorthodox song structures to one of the most fierce power-trios around, with long-term drummer Dave Narcizo holding together ‘Green’ with military precision while Bernard Georges’ lithe bass-lines underpin the twisted pop of ‘Shark’.
Hersh’s elliptical guitar playing, meanwhile, is at the fore when they close the set with ‘Pearl’. An alt-rock monster that’s been described as their Led Zeppelin number, it builds from just vulnerable voice and guitar to thunderous drumming and crescendo soloing.
This powerful rock playing contrasts with earlier compositions that were constructed around complex, choppy interplay between Hersh and original lead guitarist Tanya Donelly. As such, tonight’s audience is left in red heaven when she rejoins the band for five tracks.
This follows a support slot that starts with alt-country tracks drawn from her solo career, such as the Neko Case-esque ‘Mass Ave’ and ‘Swoon’, before moving onto those drawn from her alt-pop outfit Belly.
Slightly countrified by her three-piece drummer-less backing band, ‘Dusted’ and ‘Low Red Moon’ sound more contemporary now than they did when first released into a pre-Americana market. It’s with set closer ‘Not Too Soon’, however – for which she gets two audience members on stage to shimmy and sing backing vocals – that she really gets the crowd going.
Originally recorded during her time in Throwing Muses, it sets the scene nicely for her return to the band for ‘You Cage’. A track that lowers the physical volume yet increases the emotional one, its stillness is electrifying and is an effective prelude to ‘Red Shoes’, ‘Devil’s Roof’ and ‘Say Goodbye’, which use guitar interplay and swooning backing vocals to terrifying effect.
There aren’t many bands that remain as essential after 30 years as when they first formed but Throwing Muses retain the power to make music that soothes and understands the listener at the most primal level.
Gig date: September 18