Jeffrey Lewis and the Jackals, The Scala, London

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Ten minutes before his set is due to begin, the gangly Jeffrey Lewis emerges, blinking, on to the rose-lit stage. In a humble gesture, he sets up his equipment, instantly erasing any rock-star mystique. Then again, with that receding hairline, beat-up trainers and awkward teeth, Lewis is not the most likely of rock stars anyway.

Beginning his set with a mellow, synth-led soundscape, the New Yorker seems content to gently lower us into the performance, rather than sucker punch with sound. It isn't until the second song, "(Broken Broken) Broken Heart" that things really get under way, the nihilistic dismantling of human emotions and analysis of healing after heartache a perfect example of what makes Lewis unique.

Taking the basic love-song format, Lewis shreds it with neurotic wit before reassembling the pieces in a more honest, considered way. "East River" takes the twisted romance still further, with its sweetly sung refrain: "We could decompose as the river flows/ One bloated rotten putrid scum forever".

Despite his occasionally annoying habit of moving away from the microphone while singing, Lewis' voice is a fragile, half-broken wonder. At once childlike and world-weary, he evokes the spirit of contemporary Americana from a fiercely alternative viewpoint – something clearly learnt from folk superstars such as Woody Guthrie. However, I doubt Guthrie ever interrupted a performance to give a comic-book reading. Displaying his latest work (The Complete History of Communism in North Korea, in case you were wondering), Lewis has the audience in hysterics, his Kerouac-inspired jive cascading from his mouth effortlessly.

In places, and particularly during the well-received "Arrow", The Jackals could be mistaken for The Velvet Underground. Their sitar-influenced drone, and pounding, simplistic rhythms are often layered in feedback, while Lewis paints over the top. As they end their formal set with a trilogy of chaotic punk-rock songs, Lewis wrestles with his guitar amid a sea of feedback, never looking like the whiny acoustic troubadour he's often unfairly criticised for being.

Due to the overrunning of his 22-song set, the encore is just two stream-of-consciousness poems, one on the UK economy, the other analysing the importance of instant noodles on the New York art scene. It's a fitting way to go out, Lewis's grasp of rhythm, language and humour never deserting him.

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