When Kristin Hersh and Fred Abong visited Ramsgate in 2018 it almost felt like being in the presence of visiting musical royalty. The very intimate Music Hall was packed to the rafters for two nights; the attendant crowds was mostly made up of people who’d followed Kristin and Fred since the 90s – whether as members of Throwing Muses, Belly or solo artists – making those gigs truly ones to remember. It seemed unlikely that the Kent provinces would host these great musicians in such intimate settings again, but they both made a return visit – this time to the slightly larger Quarterhouse in Folkestone – almost exactly nine months on from those hot Ramsgate nights.
An arts complex, Quarterhouse doesn’t have the shabby chic of Ramsgate Music Hall. Instead, its spacious downstairs area very much has the feeling of a compact Roundhouse, while it’s upstairs café-bar is a great space to count down time until a show. The gig area itself, a box-shaped room with raked seating is in sharp contrast; once inside, there’s no doubt about the venue’s provincial status. It quickly brings back memories of when Suzanne Vega played at the Canterbury Marlowe – just a few miles inland – back in 1998. A lad wandering around trying to tempt patrons with ice creams only reinforces the old style mood.
It’s approximately 8pm and singer-songwriter Fred Abong appears casually from stage left. Picking up a lovely cobalt blue electric guitar, he looks awkward for a second. “It’s really hot…” he exclaims to the crowd and in turn we’ve just realised it’s probably spent…quite a while sitting just in front of the bright orange spotlight that bathes that end of the stage. Fittingly, his short opening set begins with ‘Footprints’, the lead track from his current EP ‘Pulsing’. The notes are fuzzy, but his voice is clear and the now quieted audience appear to be soaking up his angular noise. A man of few words on this occasion, he smiles at the audience at the close of the track before sliding into ‘Firefly’ and ‘Pulsing’, completing the hat-trick of the EP’s first side, before a really 90s inspired ‘Meet Me’ closes the first half of his all-too-short opening set.
Finally, returning the guitar to its stand, he reminds us that “it’s still hot!”, before picking up a beautiful black and white acoustic six string. Immediately, he is more comfortable and approaching the more complex material from his earlier release, ‘Homeless’, the audience seem a little more appreciative once he begins to work some finger-picked magic. “Can you smell burning?” he asks, possibly in reference to the recent incident with his guitar, but it’s just as likely a nod to a smoke machine on the other side of the stage which now seems to be rather keen. Whatever it is, he carries on and we all assume nothing’s actually on fire! The set’s second half features the ‘Homeless’ EP played in its entirety. This lends a genuine coherence – especially for anyone already familiar with Abong’s lo-fi recordings – and a sparky ‘Equinox’ is both a musical and vocal highlight, while the ringing, lilting ‘Hi Avalon’ has the manner of a track deserving of a bigger fan-base.
The audience aren’t necessary as enthusiastic as the Ramsgate crowd, but various faces seem to get where Abong is coming from, and his half an hour passes very quickly. For Fred, though, the evening has just begun. It’s a long night for him: in a half-hour’s time, he’ll re-emerge as bassist with the Kristin Hersh Trio, often laying down a fat four-stringed sound somewhere between JJ Burnel and Krist Novoselic. He’s a hell of a bassist.
At 9pm, Kristin Hersh appears on stage right, sporting a sizeable smile. Picking up the first of her three guitars, she calls over to Fred: “Mine’s not hot!”. She’s obviously in a great mood tonight. Over the course of the next hour, she dips into her huge back catalogue. Her power trio kick life into ‘LAX’ and a heavy-ish ‘No Shade In Shadow’, providing a superb opening salvo and a reminder of the current ‘Possible Dust Clouds’ album. Throughout the set, Abong and drummer Rob Ahlers drop into heavy blues grooves and add a real punch to a few fan favourites including Kristin’s ‘Crooked’ and Throwing Muses’ ‘Sunray Venus’ and ‘Limbo’. Various jokes are made about a fridge backstage that sounds like a cross between “a submarine and a goat” which Hersh wishes she could “wire up so everyone could enjoy it”, something that becomes even more of a subject up for discussion once her beloved cream-coloured Telecaster decides it wants to die… Other banter revolves around confusion between Telecasters and television and how, although fun, this leg of the tour has been decidedly low budget. [Those not lucky enough to witness the spectacle first-hand should know that the band’s setlists are scrawled upon paper plates!]
Another genuine highlight comes from an especially haunted ‘Your Ghost’ with Rob filling in for Michael Stipe and a ferocious one song encore featuring 50FOOTWAVE’s ‘Broke’, where Rob and Fred trade places and instruments, proving themselves to be a fantastic rhythm section. It seems odd that when it’s all over, especially given such an encore, the audience doesn’t gather much more than polite applause. There’s none of the expected volume of a London crowd. Smaller theatres make so many people self-conscious, it seems, but the general chatter seems to suggest everyone’s had a great night. Judging by her smile upon waving goodbye, despite the death of a faithful guitar, Kristin certainly has.
Fred’s ‘Homeless’ and ‘Pulsing’ EPs are available from his Bandcamp page.
Kristin’s ‘Possible Dust Clouds’ is available on vinyl and CD from the links below.
Read a review of Kristin Hersh’s Ramsgate Music Hall gig here.
Read a review of Fred Abong’s Ramsgate Music Hall gig here.
Read a review of Fred Abong’s ‘Homeless’ EP here.
Read a review of Fred Abong’s ‘Pulsing’ EP here.
Read a review of 50FOOTWAVE’s ‘Bath White’ EP here.