Helium deserves to be mentioned along with best of 1990s bands.
A musical purist friend of mine would likely never see a band if all its original members aren’t present. Seeing the Who without Keith Moon and John Entwistle isn’t really a Who show, for example, and I doubt he would be caught dead at a New Order concert now that Peter Hook is doing his own thing. However, Mary Timony neatly sidesteps the “reunion” tour pitfall by not billing her recent concerts under the Helium moniker, but instead calling them Mary Timony Plays Helium.
For the uninitiated, Helium was Timony’s group that lasted between 1992 and 1998, long enough to release two highly regarded LPs, three EPs and some singles. Since Helium, Timony released a handful of solo albums, participated in the supergroup Wild Flag (along with Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss from Sleater-Kinney) and formed the all-girl garage trio Ex Hex. Timony’s Helium albums have drifted back into print once more after Matador reissued the entirety of the band’s limited output on vinyl last year. Perhaps this reappreciation of Helium inspired Timony to dust off the songs and take them on tour. This week, she thrilled fans to an hour’s worth of music on a stop at Portland’s sold-out Mississippi Studios.
Kicking off the show with “Pat’s Trick” from her The Dirt of Luck LP, Timony demonstrated over the course of 14 songs why so many music fans growing up in the ‘90s consider her a guitar god. While Timony never received the critical kudos of contemporaries such as PJ Harvey and Sleater-Kinney, the magic of discovering Helium’s music 20 years later is that while it sounds firmly rooted in the ‘90s, you can trace the trajectory of so many musicians, both male and female, with Helium being an almost stealth member of the riot grrrl movement.
At the Portland show, Timony showed off her guitar skills with the same nonchalant air with she carries herself on stage. Dressed in a black and white sequined shirt and black jeans, Timony and her backing band tore through favorites including “Leon’s Space Song,” “Ancient Cryme” and “Vibrations.” Timony is a musician who takes her time, locks into a groove and rides it rather than thrashing her head around or relying on stage theatrics. Her guitar hero moves started and ended when she paused to point upwards. It’s subtle to a fault.
The true highlight of the show came with a killer rendition of “Revolution of Hearts, Parts I & II,” a sprawling, epic track from The Magic City. Over the stretch of nearly 10 minutes, Timony played harmonics on the neck of her guitar, totally shredding her solos, the musical blueprint for musicians from Annie Clark to Marnie Stern. It was just one of many jaw-dropping moments, culminating in a cover of the James Gang’s “Walk Away.”
Although Ash Bowie and Shawn King Devlin did not appear, Timony can rightfully use the Helium name. A friend of mine claimed the show this week was so much better than any Helium show he had seen when the band was active in the ‘90s. Perhaps the 20 years simply made Timony a better performer or maybe she had a crack backing band this time around. Or perhaps it just proves that Helium deserves to be mentioned along with best of 1990s bands.