Pop / Grant Hart The Garage, London

There was a loose, informal atmosphere at Grant Hart's acoustic show last weekend. A touch too loose and informal, actually: everyone was chatting. Hart may have relieved his songs of their sizzling feedback for the night, but he still didn't play anything you could mistake for background music. (If you heard his new live album Ecce Homo piped into your supermarket, you'd throw yourself infront of the nearest speeding trolley.) His tales of love laboured and lost make Nick Cave's "Where the Wild Roses Grow" sound like an ode to Alan Titchmarsh. Time has clearly stood still in Angstville, USA.

Hart has been beating the same anguished drum since his old band, the seminal US rockers Husker Du, released their debut Land Speed Record in 1982. Their harsh punk-pop grew darker between that and 1987's bittersweet Warehouse: Songs and Stories, and influenced a tidal wave of left-field rock bands (Nirvana, Pearl Jam, the Pixies) who each achieved more success than their heroes could have dreamed of. After a bitter split, Husker Du's singer-guitarist Bob Mould stirred up Sugar, while singer-drummer Hart formed Nova Mob, whose poor sales were due in no small part to them releasing a concept album entitled The Last Days of Pompeii.

Despite Saturday's unplugged setting, Hart sounded truly wired. He was as cruel and brusque with his guitars as he used to be with a drum-kit, clawing at the strings on "Don't Want to Know If You're Lonely". More tranquil numbers like "2541" and the lilting lullaby "She Floated Away" were rewarded with nimble playing that made you gasp. Hart himself seemed altogether more supple, having shed the bulk which once made him and Mould the Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee of rock. But he should be advised that no occasion, not even a triumphant comeback show, warrants the wearing of a beret.

Still, music this stark can excuse the most ill-advised headgear. Hart alternated his solo work with old favourites, though perhaps that description sets the wrong tone: you won't hear songs like "Never Talking to You Again" or "Sorry Somehow" on Capital Gold. They're more like forgotten friends, arriving on the doorstep, dour and bedraggled, begging for a night's kip on your sofa. Encountering them again was an emotional experience. And if the new material lacks the immediacy of Husker Du, Hart sustained a level of fury and intensity which helped him through the diciest patches (like all that Pompeii palaver, for instance).

The evening grew chilly with a raw reading of "Diane", and things began looking up for Hart: the room was suddenly heaving with bodies. Turned out there was a disco afterwards. As jazzy spotlights patrolled the walls and Cast dribbled out of the PA, Hart was seen milling around, tugging his guitar behind him. Then he trundled off into Islington and obscurity, a tourist in one and a prisoner to the other.

RYAN GILBEY

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