Neil Halstead, Arts Cafe, London

Love don't live here any more
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The Independent Culture

Something's happening here, and I don't know what it is. For this low-key first gig in support of his debut solo album, Sleeping on Roads, Neil Halstead (once of the Thames Valley shoegazers Slowdive, now of Britain's leading, if mediocre, alt.country band, Mojave 3) has attracted a packed crowd who nod and smile with private pleasure at every word of his lovelorn songs. I listen with the same attentiveness but find a vacuum waiting.

This small, pizza-selling Whitechapel venue and the crowd may be plusher, upscale equivalents of the coffee-house gatherings that Beat poets and protest singers once attracted, but the diluting of that tradition by Halstead is great. As one empty ballad follows another, I'm left feeling the same way I did when watching Travis recently. In looking for songs and singers to comfort them, the thirty-ish couples at the heart of both audiences accept the thinnest sustenance – dinner-party angst without teeth or truth. Halstead, especially, does songwriting as sedative.

The man himself is beetle-browed and politely spoken and dressed (in white T-shirt and pressed blue jeans). Sitting up on a stool, with an acoustic guitar, he is in every way unexceptional, which is how his fans seem to want him. His one musical weapon is his voice, a high, grainy, yearning thing, previously belonging to the martyr of 1970s English singer-songwriting, Nick Drake. It's a perfectly pleasant sound, if you don't concentrate on what's being sung. But whereas Drake at his best had a convincing sense of bucolic energy beyond his own concerns, all Halstead can offer is a series of passionless break-up songs.

There is the occasional passably imaginative lyric – "One day it just snowed, I guess, and they closed the roads to your heart", for instance. But the overwhelming sense is of passive, small emotions, a sort of pleasurable stasis as one lover after another walks out of the door. The deep glow and pain of love itself is ignored, in favour of constant, paper-thin regret at its absence. Eyes closed in agony, or something, Halstead sings of "the only season in my life", and the psychic weather systems in this room are that reliable: we are experiencing a mild low, caused by a wave of gauche, timid songwriting.

Halstead stumbles through this short gig, fluffing lines and restarting songs – forgivably, given its debut nature, and with the crowd's indulgence. But when one cynic shouts: "Play something good!", he does oblige. "Martha's Mantra" is a sweeping song of sadomasochistic mercy sex with a Christian girl at an American coach stop, more expansive than anything before it. So, perhaps not a hopeless case.

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