"If it weren't for people like you, I'd be back home flipping burgers or selling crack on the streets," says Micah P Hinson as he brings tonight's set to a close. "Back home" is Abilene, Texas, a "small, desolate hell-hole", from whose deadening clutches Hinson has managed to escape through recording albums such as 2006's Micah P Hinson and the Opera Circuit and the recent Micah P Hinson and the Red Empire Orchestra, collections of flyblown indie Americana sung in a baritone croak that sounds like Smog's Bill Callahan marooned in an emotional dustbowl. Hinson's biography is a litany of dissipation and poor decisions, involving drug addiction, bankruptcy, shady supermodels and chronic back pain. So there's at least one thing we have in common.
The back pain, for which he's already suffered the ignominy of surgery and corsetry and now faces the prospect of "bionic implants", hopefully to fool his brain into not feeling the pain, were the result of a playful punch in the back from his drummer, Luke Senter, one drunken Burns Night in Texas. The unkind might observe that, having crippled Hinson's body, the sticksman is now set on doing the same to his songs, most of which he hobbles with leaden, trudging rhythms.
Things aren't so bad when it's just Hinson and his acoustic guitar, or accompanied by Nick Phelps's plaintive banjo; the occasional faster, electric number shows that Senter can cope admirably with actual rock'n'roll. The trouble is that little seems to rock Hinson's world, despite his recent marriage (he proposed on stage at Islington's Union Chapel in December). His songs still crawl along despondently, here stripped of the strings and organ with which producers have embellished them on disc. I've enjoyed the albums, but this is no fun at all.
Matters aren't helped by Hinson's constant pauses to tune his guitars, and his desultory between-songs patter likewise dissipates whatever interest he occasionally builds. Half a dozen songs into the set, the three people nearest me are all texting away furiously on their phones.
It isn't a completely valueless experience. The bee-like thrumming of Hinson's picking on "The Wishing Well and the Willow Tree" is gently enchanting, and his subtle electric work on "Sunrise Over the Olympus Mons" is gripping. But Hinson needs to realise the sort of application required if you're playing songs called "Diggin' a Grave" and "Dyin' Alone", or he might soon be back home flipping burgers.