The second night of Throwing Muses’ Knitting Factory engagement started with two strikes against it: The band took the stage more than a half-hour after the announced set time with an announcement that “prodigal muse” Tanya Donelly, whose rare appearance with the band was one of the L.A. dates’ selling points, had a family emergency and would not be playing. The audience reacted with an audible groan; Donelly’s absence also appeared to douse the fire in the Muse’s belly, as they performed a workmanlike, uninvolving hourlong set. To be effective, the Muses need to sound committed.
Lead singer and songwriter Kristen Hersh is a master at the sonic complaint. Her voice — shredded and pinched, with an almost otherworldly vibrato –contains worlds of dissatisfaction, and her guitar sound, with its fuzzed-out sustain, decays into a muffled whine. The new songs from the reformed band’s emotionally scuffed, self-titled 4AD album sound pensive and raw, but only the shifting rhythmic plates of “Flying” and evening’s penultimate number, “Two-Step,” appeared to engage the band.
Which is not to say they played badly. Drummer David Narcizo was equally at home with the stiff beats of the band’s ’80s material as he was with the more angular playing demanded by Hersh’s latest songs; bassist Bernard Georges balanced the propulsive and melodic elements called for in a rock trio. But they could not pierce Hersh’s reserve. The result was a show that left you a little grumpy and wondering what might have been — which, when you think about it, are not incongruent emotions for the Throwing Muses.
The band returns to Los Angeles June 21 as part of the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival.