Grunge without muddiness and electric guitar noodling without self-indulgence: not the music you expect at Oxford’s Holywell Music Rooms, but perfectly suited to it nonetheless. Kristin Hersh (Electric Trio) delivered effortless cool and a tight, enveloping set on Friday, thrilling the lucky few who’d snapped up tickets before the gig sold out.
The choppy power of Hersh’s guitar drove the songs, resonating, echoing and creating a wonderful kind of contorted wailing. The interplay of the whole trio, though, really made the set. Playing off each other and the Holywell’s acoustics, they made incredible use of varying dynamics. And the bass and drum perfectly beat and flicked around those distinctive time signatures that Hersh’s original Throwing Muses was so famous for.
Drummer, Rob Ahlers, enjoyed every moment. Not only impressively crisp on the songs' unusual rhythms, he also provided melodic backing vocals to Hersh’s high and sinuous sound. This was particularly effective on 'Halfway Home', a track taken from Hersh’s most recent album, Possible Dust Clouds.
Bassist Fred Abong was a different kettle of fish. As bassist and the third of the compelling trio, he was utterly on point. As the support act however, a solo singer on guitar, he proved a less addictive incarnation.
While the intros to Abong’s songs showed interesting potential, as soon as he began to sing, they slipped into repetitive and oddly assembled chords. And while his lyrics might have a deeper, esoteric meaning (Abong has a humanities PhD and is a practising astrologer), referring to “soft cheese” and “peaches to fry, fishes to pie” left us mere mortals a little perplexed.
Back to Hersh though, and the standouts kept coming. 'Husk', taken from her 1999 album Sky Motel, was a much more visceral proposition than her original studio version. Fixing her glass-cold stare, Hersh tore into the lyrics, her older, jagged voice shredding the room and cutting us all to the bone.
And sticking with what looked like her once-favoured ESP Xtone – an unusual, softer-sounding guitar – Hersh went on to perform another throwback, 'The Cuckoo'. A lighter, “prettier” song, it had a more acoustic feel, yet her vocals ensured it was far from simple. A stunner in its own right, the song more than held its own in what was a complex, hooky and irresistible set.