Stable Sound, Portsmouth
January 8, 2009
Some road-trip advice: never, ever say, "We're making good time." It's like saying, "How calm the ocean is today!" Cue the typhoon.
So, yeah, we got a leeetle bit lost Thursday night on our way down to this low-key Throwing Muses rehearsal at Stable Sound in Portsmouth. Not once but twice. Missed first exit. No return exit. Picked our way through dinky surface roads trying to find a way back to 138, then missed the turnoff to the studio... yadda yadda yadda. Thank christ for GPS is all I can say.
We did get to our destination eventually. Following the directive to park along the road, we went in search of the studio. The property was sprawling —it was dark and there were no streetlights, but it looked to be comprised of two huge buildings on either side of the road, each flanked by smaller, carriage-house-type buildings. With very few lights to lead the way, we didn't exactly know which building to go to, so we set off for the largest one. Slip-sliding around in the semi-darkness, we finally spotted a light —an open door midway— and the distinct smell of ...grilling steaks?! It was like a mirage. "We're here!" we cried. "Come on in and relax!" said the steak-tender, a jovial, sandy-haired guy. "Have a beer!" We stepped forward en masse, more than ready to kick back and eat. We then realized, collectively, that there was no-one else in sight. This was definitely not the studio.
"Um, we're looking for the studio?"
"Oh! Rizzo's place?" He points behind the stable. "It's around the corner. You're close. What's going on there?"
"We're going to see Kristin Hersh."
"Oh my god, I haven't seen her since back in the day, when they used to play Harpo's! The drummer plays with that Kendall kid now."
"Yeah, they're playing tonight."
"Oh, wow, I should stop by."
We thanked him for the steak-and-beer offer, then slipped and slid our way back to the path, an unholy mix of ice, snow and horse crap that wasn't exactly welcoming to my high-heeled boots. (Stupid choice of footwear, self.)
By the time we skidded around the corner to the studio proper, we were more than ready for a cozy welcome. Expected it, even, given that this is the place where Kristin has recorded all of her solo albums; she's called it her "passionate hideout" because its big, beautiful windows and magical, welcoming qualities.
As for welcomes, who should open the door but Kristin herself? "You made it!" Waywardly, but yes. "We don't have a coat rack, but you can throw your coats on the coat pile!" We stood around for awhile, chatting and drinking wine and nibbling on cheese (there was a lot of cheese). Finally, Billy said, "Hey, let's start!" And we all filed into the studio, a cozy double room with a huge overstuffed couch on one side, the mixing board along one wall and the band set up in the other.
The chance to see the band in process- rather than performance-mode was fascinating, like poring over film splices in the editing room. Throughout the hour and a half-long set, they joked with one another; debated the relative merits of one song over another; and even stopped and re-started songs to fine-tune aspects, often tweaking the pacing mid-song. Take "Walking in the Dark": on record, it's grounded not by guitar but by sprightly piano. Transcribing that to the power-trio format proved difficult, and you could see them struggling with the tone.
Other songs sailed off without a hitch, like a furious version of "Finished." When it was over, Kristin jokingly proclaimed its suckitude. I had to disagree; then again, it's one of my favorite Muses songs, and if they'd decided to play it on kazoos, I'd still probably think it sounded great. So much for critical distance.
All in all, the band burned through fifteen or so songs, including three off K's most recent solo record, Learn to Sing Like a Star, and some surprising choices, like "Walking in the Dark," "Devil's Roof," "Bea" and "Say Goodbye." "Shimmer" called up a lingering, lovely memory of a long-ago nighttime walk through London with the as-yet-unreleased song on repeat. It was as blistering and sepulchral as always, with its beautiful refrain, "I shimmer on horizons."
Throughout, we were all transfixed and reverentially quiet. No clapping, a few ripples of whispers and cell phone twitters but that was it. At a club, there'd be the whole dance of encore?/no encore, building up to a crescendo of applause. Instead, when the band finished —ignoring Billy's entreaties to play "City of the Dead"— Kristin quietly said, "Thanks for coming."
If you like what you hear, I humbly ask that you please leave a little something in K’s tip jar. (It’s over to the right, above the Amazon logo.)
PHOTO BY A. FELDMAN. THIS IS NOT STABLE SOUND, BY THE WAY, BUT HI & DRY IN CAMBRIDGE.