Tanya Donelly, Shepherd's Bush Empire, London

Invoking the muse
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The Independent Culture

Tanya Donelly's fans are an odd lot. Where lovers of Korn might throw a pint of lager at their idols, or Kylie-ites a glittering thong, Donelly devotees throw baby clothes. When a tiny T-shirt lands on the stage, bearing the same flower motif that appears on her second solo album, Donelly looks perplexed, picking it up for closer inspection.

This peculiar offering is, one can only presume, for her daughter, Grace, who features prominently in the lyrics to the beautifully low-key Beautysleep. The album was written when Donelly was pregnant with her first child, which may account for her unusual aura of happiness. The restlessness that shaped her early career has been replaced by serenity.

In the late Eighties Donelly was best known as lead guitarist in Throwing Muses, alongside her stepsister, Kristin Hersh. In 1990 she started a side-project with Kim Deal of the Pixies, called the Breeders, though after three years Donelly left both groups and started Belly, the grunge outfit whose first album, Star, sold more records than Throwing Muses managed to shift in a whole career.

Most of Donelly's indie-kid fans are now well into their thirties, though they are no less ardent than they were a decade ago. Sporadic cries of "We love you, Tanya" erupt across the auditorium. They're all male, of course, though Donelly doesn't seem to mind – she even recognises one diehard fan at the front. "We've talked in cyberspace, haven't we?" she asks.

Donelly is a good-natured, if not exactly colourful, front person. Her conversation is largely confined to whispered thank yous and she has a tendency to hide behind her hair. Her voice, however, is a wonderful instrument – one moment wispy and sweet, the next abrasive and wailing like Kate Bush after a truckload of fags. Her songs are full of off-kilter musings and underlying weirdness. "Darkside", "Moonbeam Monkey" and "Keeping You", played with shimmering intensity, are a testament to Donelly's peerless songwriting skills. It's a shame that they all don't reach the same standards – "Wraparound Skirt" is as graceless as the garment after which it is named.

Still, after five years away, Donelly has managed to gather an impressive crowd. Such fierce loyalty is rewarded with not one but two encores, during which she continually expresses her thanks. That T-shirt didn't seem to go down well, though. It sits on the stage long after the singer has departed.

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