American Music Club, Bush Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

Would you look at Mark Eitzel? One minute he's playing the arch barfly-cum-ham-cum-raconteur to a T. The next, he's hunched down into a song, pulling its melody into his burly frame, then throwing it out like some shot-putting balladeer. He can sing the hell out of a song when his mind is on the job, and he gives no half-measures tonight.

One of the joys of seeing Eitzel back with his old band is the extent to which their 2003 reunion has liberated him. Back in the late-Nineties, as a solo troubadour, he seemed to endure 19 nervous breakdowns over the course of an average gig. On album, he abandoned American Music Club's bittersweet terrain for electronic doodles and Greek reimaginings of his songs. Tonight, though, sees him excavating AMC's emotional turf for tarnished gems of the kind he excels at.

AMC's original rhythm section lasted only a couple of years into their return, but their replacements are tight and there's a palpable chemistry between Eitzel and AMC's guitarist, Vudi. As Eitzel's lyrics range from sad to sardonic, so Vudi conjures intermittently savage and deliquescent effects. The sound is a little rough, but the resulting emotional alchemy is indelible.

It helps that the set is an AMC fan's wet dream. Sacred history is well-represented in an opening salvo of "What Godzilla Said to God When His Name Wasn't Found in the Book of Life", "Gratitude Walks" and "If I Had a Hammer". Material from The Golden Age consolidates the argument that Eitzel remains a hidden treasure of US songwriting. "The Sleeping Beauty" luxuriates under red lights, couching the autumnal tale in vivid asides; "Windows on the World" delivers a pre-9/11 snapshot of New York from a World Trade Center bar, Eitzel finding fresh contexts from which to view the world through the bottom of a glass.

Eitzel's tales of America's sad, befuddled and soused often involve a drink or two, but his focus has changed. His solo gigs tended to see him thrashing against his own boundaries. Here, he and Vudi commit unreservedly to their chosen, ragged terrain. They close with "Outside This Bar", Eitzel crooning, "Outside this bar, how does anyone survive?" How he lasted outside AMC is anyone's guess. But you're left in no doubt as to why a small but devoted following is passionately grateful that he did.

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