American Music Club: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London ***

AMERICAN MUSIC CLUB was always a select establishment. Appealing to connoisseurs of the darkest underground rock, the San Francisco group’s principal attraction was always Mark Eitzel’s songwriting.

In his bleakly beautiful world, love could drag you to destruction as often as it saved you, and deep ravines of mordant humour were mined from pits of shame and despair. It was enough to make Eitzel Rolling Stone‘s Songwriter of the Year in 1991, and for American Music Club to be signed by a major label in the general, post-Nirvana US underground gold rush. But no gold ever came AMC’s way, and after Eitzel acrimoniously split the band in 1995, he fell into the sort of black hole his songs had so often described. Devastated by the fatal drug overdose of his great love, muse and song-subject Kathleen Burns in 1998, his career collapsed, and in interviews he contemplated suicide. Solo shows were fascinating, moving, but shaky and wracked affairs. His unexpected reunion with American Music Club for this first UK gig in a decade turns, by contrast, into a tentative rebirth.

But this is no triumphant, rabble-rousing return. Most of the full house sit quietly, English reserve meeting Eitzel’s own nervous shyness to make the atmosphere hesitant, even a little chilly. “Do they speak English here ?” bassist Dan Pearson wonders, as semi-audible cries come from the crowd. The fervent looks on some faces around me, though, show how much this night means to many.

The mood of the five middle-aged men on stage means even more. The guitarist Mark “Vudi” Pankler, 52, now looks like a relic of San Francisco’s original 1960s underground, and everyone has filled out and aged. But after so many nights watching Eitzel flailing through his personal torments unsupported, what is moving about this reunion is the comfort and purpose they return to him. Musically, the band add subtle muscle missing for too long. When Pearson moves next to Eitzel, it looks like a brotherly bond.

“This is the last song I’m going to write about someone smarter and better than me,” Eitzel says, before singing one more time to his lost love, Kathleen. Descriptions of soul breakage and love in limbo pervade many of the lyrics he revives tonight, from 1987’s ‘Gary’s Song’ to the wide-screen heartache of ‘Western Sky’. “When I was young, I really wanted to be Ian Curtis,” Eitzel muses. But his tortured survival is worth more than such martyred burn-outs. And as his reformed Club depart to a fuzzball of life-affirming noise, they seem to have eased that existence, just a little.

© Nick HastedThe Independent, 28 May 2004

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