A SMALL CLUB in Madison, WI. All you can feel is heat. You've wedged yourself through this capacity-tipping crowd, tucked yourself into a tightening pocket of space, four whiskey-cokes in hand because you know you're not going to be moving anytime soon, and you're not sure if this show is going to be worthy of sobriety. You are sweating, and you have to piss, but you don't want to move, protective of your space and your alcohol. You stand and wait.

They're a three-piece. She is tiny. You must rise tip-toed to see her face, and you're irritated. She picks up her guitar, smiles, looks out at the screaming audience that could be witnessing Jesus instead of some band. And then they all start to play some rock 'n' roll. You are captured.

At least that's how it happened for me when I first saw Kristin Hersh with Throwing Muses on the University tour, the band's second to final album. I was by myself, and only a lukewarm fan of the band, having never heard any of their albums at length. Plus, I hated Belly for that fucking "Feed the Tree" video, and given the ruinous state of the music industry, of course it would be Belly that got jammed up my music-loving backside, and not something that's actually good, like Throwing Muses, or Kristin Hersh solo. Upon hearing them later I was convinced that, as far as '80s art-rock (through '90s alt-rock) went, Throwing Muses were absolutely brilliant.

I fell in love with them because of Hersh's caustic (wonderful) voice -- a rich, "goat-girl," singy/screamy vibrato thing that tore through lyrics such as "I throw your head across the ice/I throw my hands through the window, crash/like gods/a room full of delicate cutters...." That was when Kristin Hersh was crazy.

It's not just her songs, which are so cool and tricky, changing and sliding all over the place, going bouncy and light, then turning acid with seemingly no effort at all. It's not just her voice as I described it. It's partly her eyes, and that's not a stupid thing to say. It's her mad, doll eyes as she stares up into the lights (to what? To concentrate? To channel?), unfixing that locked focus only between songs, to tell sweet, country-bumpkin stories about her husband, her kids, her sister, whatever the hell she's thinking. And they're funny. Her adoring audience laughs, appreciative and greedy for any bit of Kristin they can get.

It's not put on. I've seen her with and without Throwing Muses, seven different times, and she's not a rock star. She even does this head action that makes her look like a snake being charmed, and that's not bullshit either. She's the real deal, a sort of messy, gorgeous, musical freak. All said, she's a hoot to watch, and even though by her last time in Seattle (at the OK Hotel), she had mellowed a great deal, waxing a bit less crazy, her performances were still intense and she was still snaky.

By now she's a regular pro on the guitar, and instead of swimming in her eyes, the audience member may spend a little more time staring at her fingers. She's almost become one of those hard women of music, having done her time in a noisy rock band and smoky clubs, married a cowboy, had some babies, and kept on rockin' solo the whole time.

To be honest, I have no idea what she'll play like, sound like, or what mood she'll be in during her upcoming show at the Croc, though I do know that on Sky Motel, the new album, she is more edgy and musically aggressive than she's been since her band broke up. Infused with Hersh's angry electric guitar sound, drums, and bass, "Echo" starts the album off on an exciting, upbeat note. I can just see her neck begin to snake and her eyes go distant as she announces, "I'm scaring everybody/I'm wearing everybody down.../I crave an empty lifestyle/I crave the very loudest sound." Louder. Louder.

The song goes on to say, "I'm loving everybody/and hating everyone I see /Do you still remember me/floating out on the echo?" Now I've never been one who presumes to know what the hell any lyricist is really trying to say, but I'm happy to hear her loving and hating a little bit, refined but still kicking. There will be no art-school-girl, smeared-mascara thing happening, and probably no band to accompany her, but that doesn't mean the show won't rock.

The fact that she's not crazy anymore is no reason not to go see her.

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