American Music Club, Islington Academy, London

Soaring from the wreckage

In the first line of the California quintet's opening number, their singer asked "Will this night fulfil all promises''. Loyal fans of the band would have pondered the same question, and their wishes were granted.

Shy, and prone to self-destructive boozing, singer/songwriter Mark Eitzel has been an awkward frontman, threatening either destructive rages or awkward rambling. This time, though, he let the songs do the talking as he and his band tore through a crowd-pleasing set. Not that Eitzel's performance was entirely comfortable. He contorted his body over and around the mike stand as he strove to reach the most searing notes that captured palpable pain and despair.

At least this reunion was nothing to do with topping up pension plans. American Music Club had fizzled out 10 years ago, having failed to follow up on the promise of their 1991 classic Everclear. By combining beautiful songwriting with roots influences and punk sensibilities they had laid the template for what became alt.country. During the band's absence, the likes of Calexico and Lambchop paid homage on an album of covers of the band's songs.

Another fan was REM's Peter Buck, who produced some of Eitzel's ensuing solo output, but the writer's work lacked the bite of an AMC record. Earlier this year, new album Love Songs For Patriots was deemed a worthy return. Eitzel was as sharp as ever, with most of his old band around to provide an eclectic, sympathetic backing. Yet it was a somewhat dour record, as if the band were still gingerly stepping around each other.

At this culmination of a European tour, though, the new songs came emphatically alive, thanks to a stellar all-round performance. While Tim Mooney beat out precise military tattoos, bassist Dan Pearson delivered urgent bass pulses, with thrilling distortion on the album's opener 'Ladies And Gentlemen'. Guitarist Vudi, a gangly, laconic figure in a fedora, caressed his guitar with the insouciance of a blues veteran for both country twangs and vicious post-punk spikes.

While the current album's title suggested concern with America's place in the world, most of the paranoia and disenfranchisement in Eitzel's words only served to deepen the darkness around his two main concerns: relationships on the verge of collapse and the drinking that ensued once they have ended, usually in bars you would never choose to go in.

So new numbers sat comfortably with buffed-up oldies, from the yearning opening number, "Why Won't You Stay?", to any of the dust-blown drinking songs such as "Outside a Bar".

As Friday's gig progressed, Eitzel loosened up. He introduced the romantic "Only Love Can Save You" in defiant fashion: "This is a cliché, but it's my life". Long-winded anecdotes, though, were cut short by his bandmates. We may never know what Van Morrison was doing in London's rock'n'roll haven, the Columbia Hotel, with a bottle of whisky, but at least Eitzel proved he could provide better company.

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