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Mark Lanegan Band, Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London


“Give us a smile,” jokes a heckler in the audience. He didn’t have a chance in hell. The 48-year-old grunge warrior simply trudged on with “One Way Street”, growling “I drink so much sour whiskey/ I can hardly see”. Mark Lanegan doesn’t do light, frivolity or whimsy. He deals in cataloguing the murkier alleyways of the human soul: death, drunkenness, sordidness (“Those feral girls will suit me more than/ Gloss from drugstore magazines,” he snarls tonight on “Sleep with Me”), substance abuse and the apocalypse (“The end could be soon, we'd better rent a room/ So you can love me,” he reasons on “Wedding Dress”).

If the former Screaming Tree ever considers a career change he’s a shoo-in for a part on the medieval fantasy series Game of Thrones or any vampire saga. At quite a few points tonight you hanker for the sunny and sultry presence of Belle and Sebastian’s Isobel Campbell, his best collaborator (and there are many: Greg Dulli, Josh Homme, PJ Harvey) and the canniest pairing since Nice Cave hooked up with Kylie. However, this is a fustier experience with a lot less of the witty showmanship that makes a Cave gig such a hoot.

Nevertheless, Lanegan’s distinctive baritone vocals are in fine form, and his voice has matured like an exquisite Hebridean malt, perfecting a rasping, nicotine-fuelled croon to rival Tom Waits. And those impressive pipes excel on the likes of “Wedding Dress”, “One Hundred Days” and the excellent “Hit the City”, all from his breakthrough solo album Bubblegum, from 2004.

The new material, which Lanegan mines extensively tonight, from last year’s rootsy, dank Blues Funeral, is more patchy and a tad plodding, but “The Gravedigger’s Song”, “Riot in My House” and the almost (only almost) perky “Ode to Sad Disco” are exceptions, the latter sounding perilously close to a Human League number. However, on quite a few tracks Lanegan is somewhat let down by his underwhelming five-piece band (all dressed in black, naturally, like their leader) who lack the heft and power of, say, Queens of the Stone Age. They only seem to find their groove towards the end on the generous four-song encore, which takes in the vampiric “When Your Number Isn’t Up” (“You smell the blood running warm,” Lanegan warns us), “Pendulum” from Whiskey for the Holy Ghost, new track “Harbourview Hospital”, and best of all his sensational signature tune “Methamphetamine Blues” from Bubblegum. “Rollin’ just to keep on rollin’, rollin’ just to keep on rollin’…”