The Great American Music Hall
June 12, 2022
Photos by Tyler King
The music of Lingua Ignota, the stage name of Kristin Hayter, is nearly impossible to summarize without contradicting oneself. It’s beautiful and ugly. It’s calming and confrontational. It’s serene and explosive. The same adjectives can be used to describe her live performances, which are few and far between, and she played her second of only two West Coast shows in 2022 at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco to an enraptured audience.
I’d been wanting to see Lingua Ignota since shortly after the release of her third album, CALIGULA, in 2019, but missed her due to being on tour myself. I wasn’t about to miss her twice, especially not since the release of her fourth album, SINNER GET READY, which came out last year and stands as one of the best albums of the 21st century. A musical melting pot of neoclassical darkwave, Apalachian folk music, and Christian hymnals, the entire album is held together by Kristin’s ominous piano and truly one-of-a-kind vocals, with her voice going from tender lament to deranged screaming at a moment’s notice.
I attended her show not quite knowing what to expect, but with a feeling deep down that whatever was going to happen, it was going to be memorable. And I couldn’t have been more right. Taking the stage in a green couture dress made by frequent collaborator Ashley Rose, Kristin turned on half a dozen standing lights that mimicked candles before standing still as the sound of cicadas and rustling grass filled the otherwise silent hall. The audience stood silent, waiting. Finally she sang the line “Sinner, you better get ready,” the opening lines of the song “Many Hands,” over the instrumental backing track of plucked dulcimer, psaltery, and shruti box. From that moment until the end, Lingua Ignota had the audience hanging on every word that would proceed to come out of her mouth.
The audience stayed silent for nearly the entirety of the set, only cheering twice, the first time being at the beginning of the next song in the set, “Do You Doubt Me Traitor,” the nearly 10-minute long song from CALIGULA, one of only two songs from the album that was performed at the show. The song, opening with slow dark piano chords and whispered vocals, soon reached a frenzy, Kristin shouting, “Satan, Satan, Satan get beside me! Satan, Satan, Satan fortify me!” I stood watching, completely in awe of her ability to completely replicate the tortured screams that make the recorded version of the song so powerful.
Admittedly, the music of Lingua Ignota is not for everyone. The lyrics deal with religion (specifically Catholicism), abuse, and loss, all of it on full display through Kristin’s lyrics and incomparable vocal deliveries. One of the most blatant examples of these themes came in the next song, “Repent Now Confess Now,” the lyrics being about what God will do to you if you do not do those two actions. And in a way, those two verbs, actions that are tied intrinsically to the Catholic faith, almost perfectly sum up what the performance was at its core: a repentance, a confession, but also an exorcism, another action that’s tied to Catholicism.
Soon after, Kristin sat at the front of the stage to sing a rendition of the traditional hymn “Nothing But The Blood Of Jesus,” the entire thing underscored by a sample of disgraced ex-pastor Jimmy Swaggart’s famous “I have sinned” speech. This was yet another tie to the religious themes found in her music, further driven home by the visuals that were displayed on a screen that was elevated above the stage: images of mass prayer, sermons, and the rural Pennsylvania countryside in which SINNER GET READY was recorded. The most striking images came from footage of Centralia, the ghost town in Pennsylvania that has had a mine fire burning underneath it since 1962. Juxtaposing the images of smoke billowing from the ground was that of the Assumption Of The Blessed Virgin Mary Church which stands in Centralia, completely untouched and still looking immaculate since it was abandoned six decades ago. The town was obviously a large inspiration for parts of the album, with two songs having titles that directly reference the town: “Perpetual Flame Of Centralia” and “Pennsylvania Furnace.”
The second time that the audience burst into applause was at the start of the next song, “I Who Bend The Tall Grasses,” which sees Kristin pleading with God to intercede and kill a man for her using various weapons. The song stands as a powerful monument unto itself, but given certain events in Kristin’s personal life involving accusations against Alexis Marshall of the band Daughters, the song has taken on that much more power as a plea to a power bigger than us to help someone escape a situation by any means possible, even divine intervention. For me, this was the most powerful song of the night. I’ve been to many, many shows in my life, and let me tell you that this single performance was probably the most intense thing I have ever seen at any live performance I’ve attended.
Towards the second third of the set, Kristin took to playing the piano onstage, but not before stretching out a solitary piano string and using the pull of it as the lone instrumental undercurrent of “The Sacred Linament Of Judgment.” Once the song finished she sat at the piano and played stripped down versions of three more songs, including a powerful cover of Karen Dalton’s “Katie Cruel.” Once that portion of the set was done, she stood up once more to play one final song, the aforementioned “Pennsylvania Furnace.”
The song felt like an urgent plea, even more so than the version that appears on her most recent album, as she asked twice throughout the song, “Do you want to be in Hell with me?” before repeating the phrase, “Above all others I feel your voice.” Whether the voice in question belongs to the person who she is pleading with earlier in the song or Jesus Christ is a question that goes unanswered, as the song, and in turn the set, ends with the same line that opens it: “Me and the dog, we die together.” The song ended. The audience erupted into frenzied applause. Kristin left the stage.
Two weeks before the show, a post on Lingua Ignota’s Instagram asked people to comment with a cover that they wanted her to perform at her two California shows and she would learn it. The song in question was the lone song played for the encore, which saw Kristin returning to the piano. The song was “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” by Johnny Cash. Given that the song is a cautionary tale of how you can choose to lead a bad life but eventually God will serve you your comeuppance, it’s a surprise that Lingua Ignota hadn’t covered the song before. It felt like a perfect summation of everything that she had expressed throughout the evening leading up to that point, and it was the perfect way to end the show. The repentance, the confession, and the exorcism were all over.