Luke Haines & The Auteurs with London Symphony Orchestra, St Luke's Church, London

Churchgoing for the sick at heart
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The Independent Culture

"I was in vaudeville at age five," Luke Haines and his old band, the Auteurs, sang in 1993. And since "Starstruck", the tale of a career in permanent eclipse, a flair for drama of a tirelessly rancorous kind has fuelled him. Many of the Auteurs' early songs exuded a sense of glamour soured, cutting through Britpop's perky glory. Close your eyes and his snakish, breathy voice evokes images of cobwebbed ballrooms, or a cross between Richard O'Brien's Riff Raff in Rocky Horror and Joel Grey's impish MC in Cabaret. The Auteurs split in 1996 (reforming, briefly, for an album in 1999), and Haines went on to make grand statements out of grubbily bilious sentiments in two bands whose names had his stench about them - Baader Meinhof and Black Box Recorder - as well as in solo projects and a call for a national pop strike. The fact that he asked for people to stop buying records just as his solo album was released suggested how wilfully the old ham embraced his embittered-outsider position.

It's no surprise, then, that his latest album, Das Capital, sees him lavishing opulent strings on re-recordings of some of his old numbers, in celebration of his "songwriting genius". Bands often wheel on the strings to cover for something that's fundamentally lacking, but the Norma Desmond nightmares of Haines's songs cry out for them. And, never one to miss a trick, he's picked the right spot for a gig in honour of, well, his unsung self: St Luke's Church. "I do hope you will forgive me for any light-heartedness or ebullience," he writes in his programme notes (yes, there are programme notes). Clearly, Haines is all too aware of what his natural audience has come to expect from the monster he's made of himself.

And of course, you don't get mere nostalgia from a man this wilful. His sleevenotes to Das Capital talk of "hostility to the idea of the past", and he delivers what he promises: "Old songs played in a non-sentimental way". There are no original Auteurs in the line-up, for starters, Haines having dismissed them on the "grounds of diminished musical responsibility". Cheekily, too, he plays what most bands would save until last in the first half of the set (yes, there's an interval). Backed by an eight-piece string section, Haines and his Auteur-ish troupe get his best-known songs out of the way quickly - scabrous classics such as the aforementioned "Starstruck" and the tinklingly tragic "Showgirl" sidle by before you know it, to a muted response that suggests the audience are either cowed by the venue or struggling to keep up.

Sadly, the strings swamp one or two songs, and while Haines's vicious guitar on "How Could I Be Wrong" cuts through the deluge, his spindly voice is lost on the otherwise finely fiery "Lenny Valentino". Still, with a back catalogue as keen as his, something scummily good is sure to rise to the surface. There's plenty of panache to the positively sashaying "Baader Meinhof"; still sounding like one of the finest Christmas No 1s that never was, "Unsolved Child Murder" is devastatingly brilliant; and, of the new songs, "Satan Wants Me" gallops by with spirited, spaghetti-schlock brio.

In the second set, the strings depart, leaving behind an affable Haines and a three-piece band to mine the murkier corners of his history. Most of the set is devoted to his Baader Meinhof album, from "Meet Me at the Airport" to "Mogadishu". But it's three recent songs of no love and much hate that steal it, written from the point of view of alter-ego characters and proving how fully realized Haines's sense of storytelling is. "How to Hate the Working Classes" ("Which, obviously," Haines smiles, "I do.") is wonderfully spiteful, while "Death of Sarah Lucas", in which Haines fantasises about tracing the Young British Artist to a members' bar and shooting her, grafts a stinging scenario on to cultural critique. Voice drooling with drama, he leaves us with "Oliver Twist", a song of stabbing hatred against all that's wrong with popular culture. Haines may never quite make a pop star, but you suspect he wouldn't have it any other way.

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