At first, the Exile Follies lineup doesn’t seem like it should work: Kristin Hersh (main songwriter for indie rock darlings Throwing Muses), Grant-Lee Phillips (ex-front man of Americana pioneers Grant Lee Buffalo) and John Doe (longtime leader of the iconic punk band X) would seem to have little in common. But the show’s acoustic format—in which each artist plays a solo set, as well as teaming up in various combinations—highlights how they all write unflinchingly honest material. Each one also dared to strike out alone after fronting a critically acclaimed band (hence the Exile Follies name). Despite these commonalities, though, it’s the striking differences between their musical styles and personalities that make this show fascinating, as evidenced during their February 6 performance at The Cutting Room in New York City.

Hersh started the show with a story before launching into her opening song, the moody “Sno Cat.” 

“This song is about a fight,” she said, “which is a bullshit thing to do if the person you’re fighting with is not a songwriter. I get the last word over and over again. Which is only fair, because I’m a lousy fighter, I don’t say anything.” This admission of silence turned out to be an accurate predictor of her approach for much of the evening, as she said little else between the rest of her songs, apparently preferring to let her lyrics speak for her, especially when her girlish vocals veered into a startling snarl.

Hersh’s solo set continued with the angsty “Krait” and an atonal yet compelling version of “Poor Wayfaring Stranger,” and the beautiful, melancholic “Your Ghost.” All the songs were drawn from her eleven solo albums; she didn’t play anything from her Throwing Muses days. Before “Cuckoo,” a traditional folk song that she recorded for her 1994 debut solo album Hips and Makers, she gave her only other lengthy comments of the evening, explaining how the song was “a lullaby—the only one my parents ever played for me.” Her songs, ranging in style from haunting to jaunty, were the most adventurous, musically, of the evening. Incorporating unexpected off-kilter chord changes and startlingly confessional lyrics, the atmosphere she evoked seemed to invite a certain intimacy, despite her reserved onstage persona.

At the end of her set, Hersh invited Grant-Lee Phillips to join her onstage. Beaming and jovial, he immediately lightened the mood, making Hersh and the audience laugh. The pair were clearly at ease together, having toured together many times, and Phillips told a story about how working with her on the original Exile Follies tour almost 20 years ago had inspired him. 

“I came home with all this music swimming around in my head, a lot of really spooky, swampy songs that I owe you for,” he said to Hersh, before they launched into a mesmerizing version of his song “Josephine of the Swamps.”

After Hersh discretely left the stage, Phillips continued with his own set, comprised of standout tracks drawn mainly from his solo work (“See America,” “Mona Lisa,” “Smoke and Sparks”) but also from his years with Grant Lee Buffalo (“Honey Don’t Think”). He also included a new ballad, “Straight to the Ground,” which he said will appear on the as-yet-untitled album he’s planning to release later this year. On all his songs, new and old, his distinctively woozy, warm baritone gave his material an extra dose of depth and sincerity.

Phillips’ chatty, comedic between-song patter provided an interesting contrast with his often somber music and serious lyrical subject matter, and such was particularly the case when he introduced his gorgeous ballad “Find My Way,” which was used in the 2017 film Logan, the final installment in the Wolverine saga. “It’s quite violent,” Phillips amiably explained about Logan. “There’s a lot of shredding of human flesh. And yet, this particular scene is a moment of repose for the Wolverine.” He described how his song is used in a scene where the main character plays the song on a saloon jukebox. “That’s when the soothing sounds of my song comes in, settles him down a little bit. So I’ll sing it to you, but as I do, just close your eyes and try not to think about the Wolverine, okay?”

This jovial vibe continued as Phillips invited John Doe onto the stage and they kicked off with Phillips’ high-energy song “Loaded Gun,” Doe’s clear tenor providing an interesting counterpoint to Phillips’ deeper vocals.

Continuing with his solo set after Phillips departed, Doe plays his bluesy song “The Losing Kind,” which he wryly pointed out was also used in a movie (the 2006 drama Black Snake Moan) but “it wasn’t as famous as Grant’s movie. It turned out it was a movie that everybody hated.” The crowd murmured sympathetically. Doe shrugged. “Even Christina Ricci running around in her underpants couldn’t save this movie, but that’s okay, I still got paid for the song.”

After asking the audience what he should play next, Doe rejected several shouted suggestions, showing flashes of his ornery punk persona in the process (“That [song] would sound like shit on an acoustic guitar. Just think about what you say before you say it, man!”) He finally settled on a set that included solo songs like the rousing “Get on Board” and X classics like “Burning House of Love” and “See How We Are.”

After mentioning that a new X record is in the works, Doe played a new song he said is named “The Cowboy and the Hot Air Balloon.” A story-song set in the Old West, it showed that Doe is still a master of the unexpected lyric: “He stepped out of the bar and into the street when a hot air balloon swept him off his feet/He thought to himself, ‘Where the hell did that come from?’… ‘Son of a bitch,’ he swore, ‘Holy hell!’ he cried as he and that balloon rose higher in the sky.”

Doe, Phillips, and Hersh all played together for the final 15 minutes, starting with the Grant Lee Buffalo track “America Snoring.” Phillips’ powerful vocals gave potency to the song’s defiant lyrics, as Hersh and Doe provided rhythm guitar and backing vocals. The protest theme continued with Hersh singing a cover of Bob Dylan’s “The Levee’s Gonna Break” (which she included on her 1994 Strings EP). They ended the evening with Doe singing the X’s “The New World,” which morphed into The Beatles’ “Revolution” for a rousing finale. 

At almost two and a half hours long, Exile Follies certainly gave the audience a lot of material to consider from each of these artists, though it might be argued that Hersh got a bit shortchanged (she and Doe did not do a set together, and she often seemed overshadowed by her more outgoing peers). But overall, as they seemed to deliberately emphasize, it is always possible to find common ground to celebrate.

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