Kristin Hersh: Inventing America Barbican, London

It was an evening to renew your faith in the simple power of a song: the ability to transport you with its beauty while engaging you with its drama. To convey unsettling imagery without succumbing to modish (for which read unit-shifting) angst-pop. And to do all this alone on a vast stage, with nothing but your voice and an acoustic guitar.

Admittedly, Kristin Hersh did soften the Barbican's stark lines with an imaginary living-room - a table with candlesticks, chairs, a chaise longue, a screen and, of course, a carpet. It's odd seeing one on stage, especially when you bear in mind the chequered history of the artist's carpet in rock. No more so than in the early Seventies when Keith Emerson refused to play with ELP until his lucky rug had been laid down. here, though, it just did a nice job of reinforcing the sense of intimacy.

Hersh is the former lead singer and principal songwriter of the now departed Throwing Muses. Her songs are often dark, tangled and frightening tales; but, in her case, they come from the experience of living with, and managing, her mental illness, rather than a manufactured kookiness. Writing them is a form of release - the fractured snatches of lyrics hinting at the wounds inside. Although the new album, Strange Angels, is more upbeat and assured than its predecessor, the superb Hips and Makers, the darkness is still evident. On Thursday night, she opened with "Gazebo Tree" from the new release. Hersh's voice yelped and cracked as she sang "My but you slay me ... I'm better off inside/Strip and you lose your hide." But she was determined that the evening wasn't going to be a self-indulgent wallow in lament and tragedy - "No sad songs tonight; just sunshine and happiness," she announced with a grin. That easy rapport with the audience was in stark contrast to the mannered sulkiness of bands who pretend that the audience isn't really there at all.

Hersh's songs never rely on a glib chorus, an easy ride, but on an intricate spareness, an awareness that sounding too polished loses the message in the medium. From the gentle simplicity of the ballad "Hope" ("I feel broken and miles away") to the haunting refrain of "Your Ghost," she bared her soul with her tales and sat at her guitar, left leg twisting coyly like a little girl, head swaying.

A song about self-mutilation would grace few encores, but Throwing Muses' "Delicate Cutters" is a perfect summation of her art: baroque guitar playing, mood swings, erratic time changes. And the words "I throw my hands through the window/Crash/Like poetry" - say so much more than any whining MTV clone could. She had even managed to introduce it with a deliciously funny anecdote about an unfortunate Swedish entry to the Miss Universe pageant. My, how her mind works.

Kristin Hersh plays the Virgin Megastore, Oxford Street, London, at 9pm tonight; 'Strange Angels' is on 4AD.