The Detroit Institute of Arts “Friday Night Live!” series brought none other than KristIn Hersh to town this past Friday for a stellar (and FREE) performance. Hersh has influenced countess other artists through her work with her band Throwing Muses and her high caliber solo offerings. Despite being overshadowed by a few of her contemporaries, Hersh is responsible for some of the best records of the 1990’s (Throwing Muses 1991 effort, The Real Ramona and Hersh’s 1994 solo debut Hips And Makers, for starters). And her newest band, 50ft Wave, kicks ass in a way the Breeders haven’t matched since Pod.
The very intimate performance, titled “Paradoxical Undressing,” took place at the Detroit Film Theater and featured a solo Hersh reading excerpts from an upcoming memoir of the same name. Based on her teenage diaries (apparently lost in a flood), Hersh’s readings took us through the life of a young, shy and struggling musician who found a way to both fit in with and defy the cultural trappings of the artistic community that surrounded her. Vivid descriptions of squatting at a place once occupied by recently deceased elderly couple, befriending an older, quirky actress who never missed a Muses show (and frequently brought along her priest), and the delicate emotional balance of befriending junkies, offered Hersh an opportunity to let us into her past thorough her innermost thoughts – a serious privilege, given her notoriously shy nature.
The readings were enhanced by beautiful video projections of paintings by Molly Cliff Hilts – pieces, Hersh explained in the program, that were included “because most were created with my music playing. This makes me happy and sad, but it also means the world to me.” The paintings slowly morphed and rolled by on a screen -- colorful, yet muted abstractions made way to simple yet beautiful skyscapes -- adding a visual element to the mood of the show. In between her spoken word pieces, the spotlight would dim, hiding Hersh from the audience, save for a black silhouette outlined by the projected paintings. She would then launch into a Throwing Muses song. The music seemed that much more powerful and intense in this setting. Anguish and beauty collided for a few short, breathtaking moments – and then it was over. When the last note was played, Ms. Hersh turned off her amp, unplugged her guitar, gave a slight nod and smile to the crowd, and left the stage.
The term “parodoxical undressing” refers to a common, yet bizarre, act of hypothermia victims in which they irrationally remove warm clothing. To be sure, it is a psychological enigma that flies in the face of common sense – a human phenomena that will most likely never be understood, much in the same way that those of us pulled under by the current of Hersh’s stark and open offerings will never fully understand the paradox such offerings present. What drives artists like KristIn Hersh – despite their shyness, despite their personal battles with mental illness, despite their hardship and struggle – to step back and let the music take over? Will we ever come close to solving the mystery of what drives inward, introverted people to create and share with such aplomb and intensity? It really doesn’t matter. The truly phenomenal part is the act of experiencing the output of such a paradox in action. –Laura Witkowski
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