Elvis Perkins, Bush Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

It's a joy to say it: Elvis is alive, very much so. No, not that one. Elvis Perkins, the son of the actor Anthony Perkins (think motel manager and cause of much shower-phobia), mines the folk-blues staples of love, the loss of it, liquor and, most importantly, loss per se. But he does so with vigour and muscle, with folky fragility and singer-songwriterish solipsism nowhere to be seen.

It's no wonder that Perkins deals with death, of course. He might be tired of reading his life story of loss in the press, but it's tough to avoid: tragically, his father died of Aids-related illnesses on 12 September 1992, while his mother, the photographer Berry Berenson, was on the plane that slammed into the north tower of the World Trade Centre on 11 September.

With that history of grief at its core, Perkins's debut album, Ash Wednesday, pirouettes poetically around questions such as, "Do you ever wonder where you go when you die?"

Perkins's live form is a jaw-dropper, though. This is a show, not a wake or a confessional. Played solo, the opener, "It's Only Me", establishes a questioning thrust, drawing on existential doubt ("I'm just a man, it's more than I can understand") and evocative imagery. As his band, Dearland, take the stage, though, the sound builds in clout thanks to a thumping double bass, a passionate marching drum, and Perkins' own lustrous 12-string acoustic guitar and harrowed harmonica.

Oblique lyricism and a full-bodied sound lend Perkins' material richness and texture, channelling introspection into communal catharsis. Hints of Arcade Fire's punk-rustic tumult and Beirut's eastern European blues pump through the set, from a strident, galloping take on the Gallic waltz of "All the Night without Love" to the mournful trumpet of "Doomsday". (Comparisons with Dylan are equally unavoidable.)

Perkins gives good theatre, too. Tom Waits' troubadour romanticism flavours "The Night and the Liquor", somewhat tipsily. Later, the main set closes with a cheekily show-stopping "1,2,3 Goodbye", before the encore sees band members joining Perkins one by one, building the drama in incremental layers.

Between the raucous hoedown of "May Day!" and a full-blooded re-imagining of the traditional "Weeping Pilgrim", hope salvaged from blues is the set's driving spirit. Perkins taps deep personal trauma when he sings of a desire to "disappear into the fields of stars between my ears", but he has the art to transcend it and draw an audience in. By their increasingly impassioned response, you suspect that tonight's crowd came curious and left as converts. You also suspect they won't be the last.

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