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Giant Sand and Kristin Hersh, The Barbican Centre, London, July 22nd 2010

July 27, 2010

Disclaimer: this first paragraph contains personal reminiscence concerning Giant Sand (left) and their small part in Astral and me getting together. Don’t worry – it won’t get mushy, but if you want to skip to the gig review, please head for the second paragraph. OK… One of the very first times Astral and I met was at a Giant Sand gig at the Mean Fiddler in Harlesden. It wasn’t our first date as such (that honour went to the Iggy Pop show at The Forum in August of the same year), but it was a fine evening with, as I recall, that big eight-piece Giant Sand line-up that included soon-to-be Calexico founders John Convertino and Joey Burns, and, I think, Vic Chesnutt too. And any woman who likes Giant Sand has got to be cool, yes? That’s what I thought too, and I was right.

This show at the Barbican was billed as a Giant Sand 25th anniversary special called In Their Own Worlds: Giant Sand featuring Kristin Hersh + Howe Gelb & A Band Of Gypsies. I assumed that it wasn’t Jimi’s Band Of Gypsies, and sure enough the online notes explained that these were a band of Spanish gypsies from Cordoba with whom Howe had recorded his latest album. But first Kristin Hersh. I’d been a huge fan of her band Throwing Muses back in the 80s. Indeed, in 1988 at that same Mean Fiddler in Harlesden mentioned above (which will mean nothing to you if you skipped the first paragraph), I saw Pixies supporting Throwing Muses in a 4AD Records special. One critic described it as, ‘the finest double act since the Romans decided to put the Christians and the lions on the same bill,’ which is distasteful but funny – and quite possibly true. The mainstays of Throwing Muses were Kristin and her half-sister Tanya Donnelly (later of The Breeders and Belly) and their music was somewhat disparagingly called ‘art rock’, but I found it strong and upfront. The two women didn’t pull their punches and many of the songs were candid and painful, though lots of their tunes were also melodic and highly danceable.

For tonight’s proceedings. Kristin took the stage just armed with her acoustic guitar and launched into Gazebo Tree from 1998’s Strange Angels:
I’m better off inside,
Strip and you lose your hide,
Bless my baby eyes,
Don’t you know Jesus died?
Spare me your moon shining
In my rainy gazebo tree…

In my experience, Kristin’s had the curse of the ‘kooky’ label for much of her career and, yes, she is eccentric and her lyrics and songs veer towards the strange, but she’s tough and clear in her vision – and she plays those barre chords on the guitar like a demon. Among one or two newer songs, including Mississippi Kite from her Crooked album, she played the Throwing Muses song City Of The Dead, and Teeth from 1994’s Hips And Makers:
What I said was get me a drink
Alright?
What – am I supposed to sit
And look at you all night?
All girls cry,
Like I said, I don’t know why.

It was a great performance and left me wanting to hear more from her – it’s been too long.

After she’d left, Howe loped on stage with the current incarnation of Giant Sand and, despite the 25th anniversary blurb, delivered a set of mainly new and unreleased songs, which is very refreshing. They’re still dominated by that dusty desert sound that has been so influential to the modern ‘alt-Western-country’ sound, but as they appear to be so laidback, it’s easy to underestimate how weird some of Howe’s material can be. Along with the relaxed strumming style you might associate with the American southwest, you can also hear little snatches of JJ Cale’s dusty blues, a bit of Tom Waits’ junkyard jazz and even a touch of Captain Beefheart from that far-out sometime desert-dweller Don Van Vliet. The set kicked off with Stranded Pearl from 2008’s ProVisions and we were also treated to the late Vic Chesnutt’s Expiration Day, made popular by Widespread Panic. It was an enjoyable and restrained set, with Howe as the genial and dry host, as ever.

After the beer break, the band returned to provide an atmospheric live backing to Kristin reading from her forthcoming autobiographical reminiscence Paradoxical Undressing. The title refers to the peculiar tendency of some hypothermia sufferers to remove their clothing, making the condition worse. Kristin explained that, for her, it related to her feeling of laying herself bare on stage through her music even though she is, like many performers, shy and not at all confident. Interestingly, a few days after the show, I was watching a repeat of Tony Palmer’s 70s All You Need Is Love TV series and an interview with Janis Joplin’s biographer Myra Friedman, who said that the one overwhelming feeling that she had about Janis was how frightened she was – ‘of everyone and everything’ – which is an extraordinary and thought-provoking thing to say about such an apparently confident and ‘ballsy’ performer. Anyway, Kristin’s readings were funny, insightful and alarming by turns, and the band’s gentle noodlings complemented the readings well. I’ll definitely get the book when it’s published. You can read more about it in this Guardian interview.

The last act of the evening was Howe returning with his gypsy friends from Cordoba for a very enjoyable set of songs in very much the Spanish style. The guitar-playing was excellent and the band added a little oomph to what otherwise would have been a very laidback evening of music. At the end, Kristin came on to join Howe and the band in a fine version of Wayfaring Stranger, and we were treated to two great encores – loud rocker Thin Line Man and gentle song The Last Time. It had been a very entertaining evening and exceeded my expectations – I’ve come to regard many of these multi-star Barbican evenings as forced and lacking in something, but this time Howe, Kristin and the boys did just fine.

PS  This is my 100th blog posting for the year. That’s been a lot of music, but it’s been good. Remember, folks – live music is better…

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One Comment leave one →
  1. July 28, 2010 9:16 pm

    Congrats on the 100th blog and what a fine one as well!

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