Alt-rock icon Kristin Hersh, unlike virtually all of her peers, never made much of a grab for stardom. Even at their most compelling, Hersh’s songs are more likely to get under your skin than make you hum along; combined with her always-unpredictable vocal delivery and vehement anti-industry attitude, she screams “cult artist” unabashedly.

The 1986 debut album by Hersh’s most well-known band, Throwing Muses, remains a curiously unparalleled record, particularly because neither that band nor any of Hersh’s other projects have ever really sounded like that since. Yet despite the album’s legendary status, Hersh has all but disowned it. “I don’t know why anyone would listen to it,” she told The Guardian in 2020. In fact, only one song from the band’s original 1981-1997 run, a 1992 b-side called “City Of The Dead,” made it into Hersh’s set Sunday night at Colectivo’s Back Room. For fans who’ve stuck around all these years, that didn’t matter a bit.

Opening for Hersh was her fiancé (as of 2020), Fred Abong, bassist for Throwing Muses briefly in the early ‘90s before splintering off with another bandmate, Hersh’s stepsister Tanya Donnelly, to form Belly. (No hard feelings, apparently.) After leaving Belly in 1994, Abong became a carpenter, ventured into professional astrology, and earned his PhD in Humanities in 2016, while also writing songs along the way. While this touring arrangement is probably more of an economic strategy than a romantic or artistic one, Abong’s calm, measured folk tunes were a suitable warm-up for the evening.

The Back Room was set up with chairs and tables (even a few candles) for this performance, an extra intimate setting for an artist many would consider a living legend. Obviously, pandemic anxiety remains a limiting factor in concert attendance, but it also may be that Hersh’s reputation as an outspoken iconoclast and unorthodox songwriter has overshadowed her abilities strictly as a performer. It took only the opening strains of “Bright” to set the record straight.

Although Hersh’s singing style has changed over the years, no recent record has captured the essence of her voice the way it sounded in this room. Perched on a stool with just a pair of acoustic guitars to work with, Hersh sang mostly material from the current century in a voice both world-weary and fierce. She has essentially become a blues singer, as any American rock or pop singer can only hope to as they age. Few would dispute her claim to that tradition; Hersh has weathered more than her share of personal and professional hell, as documented by a growing collection of books that now rivals her work as a musician (her latest, Seeing Sideways: A Memoir Of Music And Motherhood, came out last year).

Given her propensity for storytelling, fans might well have expected an evening full of anecdotes, but banter was scarce during her hourlong set. She made an exception while introducing the recent Muses song “Bywater,” about her real-life pet goldfish: “His name was Freddie Mercury ‘cause he had a perfect mustache. He also had one fin, so he swam in circles for his whole life, which I thought was pretty sad, until the guy at the merch booth told me all fish do that.” This was the only deconstruction of her often surreal lyrics that Hersh would offer throughout the night. “My drummer said, ‘When people find out that all your songs are literally true, that you aren’t a poet at all, you are in so much goddamn trouble,’” she quipped before starting the tune.

The silver lining of not having hit songs is being able to pick a setlist without much fear of hanging your audience out to dry. The crowd was rapt and appreciative of every number, although many undoubtedly felt a strong twinge of nostalgia upon hearing “Your Ghost,” off Hersh’s 1994 solo debut, Hips And Makers. The original recording featured backing vocals by Michael Stipe, and chances are if you were paying attention to music in the ‘90s you heard it at some point, though possibly not since then.

Attendees new to Hersh’s catalog, however, may be underwhelmed today, digging into her solo albums on some streaming service, because although her lyrics still hold up, her delivery is far more potent now than it was 30 years ago, at least onstage. She has watched as most of her fellow Gen-X visionaries have transitioned into cash-cow legacy acts. Hersh may be the only active singer/songwriter of her generation who is more captivating onstage now than ever before.

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About The Author

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Cal Roach is a writer (here, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and radio DJ (WMSE 91.7 FM) who has lived in Riverwest for most of the past two decades.