American Music Club, ULU, London

ONE SONG in, and the unthinkable appears to have happened. A young woman is dragged from the throng and placed on the stage, flat out and motionless as worried members of American Music Club fuss over her. Could this be Mark Eitzel’s guiltiest dream being realised? Has someone actually died after hearing one of his songs?

Well, no, immortality will have to wait a little longer. The girl recovers sufficiently to walk away, albeit obviously shaken. Such is the emotionally charged atmosphere of an AMC gig, though, that one has come to expect anything from these affairs, and a fatality would simply have been the thorny crown on a career indelibly branded with the words ‘No Luck’. Even before tonight had begun to look like a scene from Casualty, their cards appeared to be marked. Ambling on before a crowd swollen by a clutch of major label MDs wondering whether the time is at last nigh to give the Club their just desserts, Eitzel proceeds to apologise in advance for the next hour or so — he’s got laryngitis and his voice is wrecked. Pass the oblivion, mine’s a double.

Yet this was from a man who has turned self-deprecation into a fine art, and no more than par for the course. Eitzel’s throat ailment actually enhanced his singing’s husky beauty, amplifying the tension of the likes of ‘Why Won’t You Stay’ and ‘Blue And Grey Shirt’ where emotional and physical breakdown is but a whisper away. Bolstered by the calm strength of his band, there’s none of the trauma that marked his infamous Borderline solo appearance a year ago, where Mark looked and sounded near the end of his tether. Indeed, rarely has he appeared so at ease with an audience.

For all the joshing, though, it comes down to a white-knuckle finale of ‘Last Harbour’ to cement Eitzel’s reason for belief, as he abandons the crutch of a microphone and sings to us directly. At such moments, this man has to be one of the most nakedly honest and convincing performers in the world.

For an encore AMC bulldoze their way through the deliberately bare-faced ‘Bad Liquor’ before leaving Eitzel to grapple alone with ‘Kathleen’, an excruciatingly personal, irredeemably hopeless song. He can’t go on. The voice finally breaks, and Mark rips off his guitar in frustration before hurling the strap into the audience. Not the guitar, the strap. It’s all too real for comfort. A gasp goes up, followed by the lights.

Oh, just another night down at the American Music Club. You’ve never lived ’til you’ve been there.

© Keith CameronNew Musical Express, 15 February 1992

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