Kristin Hersh / Ben Weaver – Schubas (Chicago, IL)
Given identical tools — two hands, one voice and one acoustic guitar — it’s hard to conjure a pair of performers less alike than Kristin Hersh and Ben Weaver. She’s an alt-rock survivor with a girlish lilt who thrums urgent rhythms and scoffs at the men in her wake; he’s a young folk singer whose earthy rasp and stark melodies fixate on lovers he longs for but left.
This odd couple filled Schubas Tavern in Chicago on two straight nights in January, the second gig following a dose of brutally bad winter weather in which snow from the plains met gusts whipping off Lake Michigan. By showtime that Saturday, the streets were clogged with a foot of powder and the gales had carved even deeper drifts. It added up to what Hersh’s husband and manager called the “emptiest sold-out show we’ve ever done.”
First known in the 1980s as the leader of Throwing Muses, Hersh has since released a handful of solo discs and last year debuted a new trio, 50 Foot Wave. This unaccompanied set wasn’t faultless; some of the uptempo tunes suffered when stripped down, and Hersh hadn’t quite mastered a couple of new songs she tried. But there are sins worse than an acoustic arrangement of the Muses obscurity “Cottonmouth” that only suggests the vicious potential of a full-band version, and most serious fans will forgive a botched lyric or flubbed lick as the price of hearing new material explored in the live setting.
Those fans heard their share of transcendent moments, too. Hersh carefully wove thickets of notes under the vivid imagery of “Sno Cat”, with its visions of “A man made of butterfat.” “Vertigo” gathered tension in its pensive verses and released it in rushing refrains. Even the relatively straightforward “Gazebo Tree” was delightfully lush, Hersh savoring the sound of the words as she phrased them.
Weaver took a very different tack. A broad, bearded and imposing figure with songs molded to match, he stood where Hersh sat, rumbled where she trilled, and struck a folkie’s stark open chords where she relied on a rocker’s barre patterns.
But even Weaver’s best Greg Brown growl and Steve Earle sneer couldn’t hide his bleeding heart. Though gruffly sung, his words voiced characters who love hard, hurt deeply, screw up royally and aren’t ashamed to admit it. When they’re not falling head over heels (“Lipstick and gasoline stain the knees of your pants/No matter how hard I try I can’t wash you from my hands”), they’re tripping themselves up (“I’m not gonna be with you in the end/It’s cold as the stars way down inside of me”).
He’s just 24, but Weaver’s latest disc, Stories Under Nails, is already his fourth LP. He’s come a long way in a short time, and a set-closing threesome of songs from that disc — the banjo-haunted “Like A Wound”, the bittersweet “Sway With Me” and the Buckneresque gut-wrencher “Voice In The Wilderness” — showed he’s still on the upswing.