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Tanya Donelly, University of London, 28/2/02
Special things happen outside Tanya Donelly gigs. (1) On a bitterly cold night in February 1989 I was waiting outside a Throwing Muses gig at the Sheffield Leadmill with some friends, listening to support act The Sundays soundchecking. The nearest pub had a sign on the door, "No blacks or skinheads", so it was decided that students would be equally unwelcome and rather than risking a pint glass in the face, we'd hang around outside the Leadmill, perhaps merely incurring a short hospitalisation for hypothermia. Suddenly a side door opened and the Muses, then in their Hunkpapa pomp and flirting with hit records, strode out. This was a first encounter with rock stars off-stage and the memory has lingered. From my vantage point beneath a bouncer's boot, Kristen Hersh (the definite focal point of the Muses and later that night to deliver one of the most powerful performances I've seen) seemed a small, intense presence. Tanya Donelly though was on a different planet; blonde and dressed in a impossibly glam overcoat, the streetlights suddenly seemed to turn into halogen spotlights. Either that or she glowed from inside. 'Here', I thought as I picked myself off the floor, 'is a woman going places.'
Tanya, of course, went places. Usually contributing a couple of songs per Muses album and playing second guitar, her songs became better and more frequent. By the time of her last album with the Muses, The Real Ramona (a flawed masterpiece that has never been fully acknowledged), it was Tanya's more commercially aware songs that were being released as singles (in particular, Not Too Soon). The future for the Muses looked bright at this stage, and it was a major shock in '92 when Tanya announced she was leaving the Muses to form her own band, Belly.
The Muses became marginalised after that, but Belly went on to achieve the success the Muses had threatened. The first three EPs and album, Star, were excellent with a real sense of Tanya's personality shining through. The second album, King, searched for the epic and seemed to be designed for a larger stage. The tour in support of King rocked, but there was a concern that too much was being asked of songs that were vulnerable and confessional. I certainly remember a devastating acoustic version of Judas My Heart on a Mark Radcliffe session that was easily better than the album version. An element of disillusionment and bitterness was introduced in Super-connected ("All the freaks gather round / And the crowd in your bedroom waits for a piece of your personal space"). She never did develop the thick skin that celebrity presumably demands, and it would have been out of character for her to do so. The Belly split was surprising at the time given that the band were more successful than ever, but seems more understandable in retrospect.
The third phase of Tanya Donelly began in 1997 with the solo album Lovesongs for Underdogs. Opinions divide on this album, a friend rates it as one of his favourites, but to my ears it sounded patchy though with clear highlights. Pretty Deep should have been a hit single, Mysteries of the Unexplained was beautifully world-weary. And Tanya's vocal range had gradually improved over the years, and now swept from a sweet whisper to full-on diva mode.
There followed a lengthy five year break before last year's magnificent Sleepwalk EP with the lead track The Storm featuring some of the finest vocals I've ever heard, and this year's subtly infectious Beautysleep album. Family commitments meant that the tour was curtailed to three UK dates, which was why thirteen years on from the Leadmill we were standing outside ULU on a damp February evening. Without tickets. And the damn thing has sold out...
Special Things happen outside Tanya Donelly gigs. (2) After five minutes of hanging around in a futile search for touts we are beginning to lose hope when someone from the record company suddenly beams down from nowhere with a handful of tickets. Free tickets. Five seconds later we are in the bar.
Tanya arrives on-stage, still glowing, and confidently launches into a solo The Bees, from the unhappy second Belly album. The sound is superb, quieter than usual gig volume, but each instrument is well defined. The Bees is a classic Tanya song. Revolving around the hook, "If your heart is not on my side", it lays down a challenge, both to the other half of the relationship the song describes and to the listener. It's been said that men usually write after the event, "emotion recollected in tranquillity", as Wordsworth had it, and women write more in the heat of the moment. Tanya's songs certainly feel like they obey this rule. "Now the bees behind my eyes sing 'beware' / but my bee-stung tongue wants in there". There a knowingness here as well as desire. Undeniably the songwriter is opening up and giving 100%. Sometimes she reminds me of Billie Holiday.
Tanya's joined on-stage by a countryish band (drums, bass, keyboard/slide guitar) and two songs from Underdogs follow (including the excellent Swoon) before Keeping You, the best track from beautysleep. The latter sounds like it was written for her daughter and is certainly a happier song than The Bees, though there is a reminder of that darkness in the bridge:
My heart's not new
I'm not like you
I've loved and been loved well and badly too
My body's been through everything
I've used and been used
I got over it
There's something that you learn on a tightrope
Just outside the spotlight there's a big net waiting
So the girl that wrote The Bees got better. Good.
The Storm is simply brilliantly sung. Jazz fans usually applaud at the end of solos, but I've never heard it done at a pop gig before. But when Tanya holds the high note halfway through The Storm for an age, there are wild cheers and applause from the crowd, and they're richly deserved.
The encores are a rare journey into obscure B sides and old Belly tracks. After Your Party, from sleepwalk, is a lovely song about big city loneliness ("It looks like I won't be becoming the new flame in town"). Restless is beautifully done. The impact of Belly's blistering Slow Dog is perhaps lessened by the country feel of the guitar. But all reservations are swept aside by an unscheduled second encore, a cover of Gram Parsons' Hot Buritto #1. This was on Belly's Gepetto EP, and if we earlier thought The Bees had desire, this needs the full cold shower treatment, "Once upon a time, you let me feel you deep inside / But nobody knew". A fine way to end. Circumstances and logistics mean that we don't see and hear Tanya Donelly as often as we'd like and I certainly think she should still be having hits. But that's everyone else's loss, and there's a secret pleasure in seeing her at small, intimate gigs like this. There was only one problem: the date. It should have been a leap year, 29th February. Nights like this are rare.
Chris Sampson, 2/3/02
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The Tanya Donelly official site.