The Mark Lanegan Band, Mean Fiddler, London

Into the heart of the song
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The Independent Culture

"Oh, and it hurts sometimes... God knows that it does," Mark Lanegan howls, clutching his microphone stand with star-tattoo-speckled hands, on the Led Zeppelin-esque "Because of This". He's not the first singer to have made that complaint, of course, but you'll find few today who can make it with Lanegan's ravaged gravitas. And that's not least because, where lesser singers have to make do with mere voices, this man has a force of nature at his command: granite gruff, sour-whisky soulful and formidably lived in.

Just how lived in has been the subject of plentiful speculation. Between the late Eighties and mid-Nineties, Lanegan was the frontman for Seattle's rustic-rock should-have-beens Screaming Trees, a band trailed by tales of multifarious mayhem - drink, drugs, infighting - wherever they roamed. (One of their touring members was Josh Homme, the singer/guitarist in Queens of the Stone Age, who now boast Lanegan among their touring line-up.) When his friends Jeffrey Lee Pierce (of The Gun Club) and Kurt Cobain died, some corners of the press began to fear for Lanegan's well-being. But he kept it together, to make a series of increasingly potent, personal, blues-flavoured solo albums, ranging from 1990's low-key The Winding Sheet to 2001's magnificently moody Field Songs. Whatever demons he has, this, thankfully, is where he directed them.

Live, his glowering presence does give off the air of someone who's been there, done that, and isn't about to waste time on between-song natter or budging from his microphone stand. The focus is squarely placed on the songs and the voice, and both are sufficiently wracked and rich to carry the can.

Musically, Lanegan's solo schtick tethers his songs of love, loss and darker matters to a moody mix of rock and US roots, played tonight by a five-strong band with taut restraint. As for the man's larnyx, you have to marvel at it, despite and because of any worries that his non-stop nicotine habit might break it at any minute. (The stage is Lanegan's ashtray.) It's not just a growl, but a voice of great range and character. On "One Way Street", a stealthy tale of "trying to get out" of some fix or other, it sounds like a rumble from the grave; on the gorgeous "Pill Hill Serenade", a wrecked but warm croon; and on a cover of The Sunset Travellers' "On Jesus' Program", a full-bodied howl.

On the latter and elsewhere, Lanegan's choice of covers is revealing and impeccable. He gets the measure of Captain Beefheart's "Clear Spot", which makes for a nicely raucous encore track. At a more subtle extreme, he handles the Brook Benton/Bobby Bland soul classic "I'll Take Care of You" with delicate brilliance, proving capable of squaring up to otherwise untouchable history, and bringing something darkly foreboding of his own to it.

As for Lanegan's own material, the songs from his just-released EP, Here Comes That Weird Chill, find fresh avenues for his rock'n'roots sound. The devilish "Methamphetamine Blues" is part industrial rock, part Swordfishtrombones-era Tom Waits clatter and wheeze. The band rush it slightly tonight, but it's strong enough to get you wondering what paths Lanegan will take on his forthcoming album, Bubblegum. Likewise, "Skeletal History" unfurls with scorching power and hellfire lyrics that only a voice such as his should chew on. "Can't anyone admit the fact that they infected her?" he growls, making each word matter. "She said the sun was gonna burn and blister... "

Come the close, the number of cries for little-known, unplayed tracks (he might want to consider rehearsing "Gospel Plow", "Pendulum" and "Bell Black Ocean" for next time), each of them brilliant, makes it clear just what a body of work Lanegan is building. Little wonder that a sly grin cracks his weathered face as he leaves. He may have been down low, but on this evidence, Lanegan has enough of the real goods to come up smiling.

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