In his dapper fisherman’s hat and blue velvet jacket Mark Eitzel is regaling the crowd with a tale of how un-rock’n’roll the entertainment has been on the current tour. American Music Club have been maxing out on daytime TV and endless home improvement shows. For a group reformed after ten years apart, and in their mid forties, maybe this can only be expected. Gone are the groupies, the crystal meths and the gallons of moonshine.
But any doubts that the band may have lost its edge with the passing of time are quickly dispelled by the passion and verve that’s implicit from the start. Seen by some as the grandaddies of the alt.country scene, AMC’s music tonight is much darker and grittier than that honour would suggest. Less Uncle Tupelo more the Velvet Underground fighting Johnny Cash in an after-hours drinking den. The songs, crouched as they are in booze, shadows, broken hearts and disjointed lives, swirl and shine. They are filtered through Eitzel’s voice, one that’s pure crushed velvet gold, the sound of an aspirin dissolving in a glass of whiskey.
The set is drawn from across the band’s back catalogue, but it’s not just an attempt to wallow in nostalgia. Songs from the latest LP Love Songs for Patriots are delivered with such punch that Eitzel’s body seems to be jack-knifing, bleeding out the words to Patriots Heart. Vudi’s guitar swoops in halfway through, eviscerating the song and leading it down into the depths of despair.
Yet despite the subject matter of the material, the darker side of human nature, the songs resound with hope and wit. In the refrain of Only Love Can Set You Free, Mark sings “I am so lucky”, investing the line with so much warmth and emotion that it really soars. In the pleading Jesus Hands, where another drink at another bar with another crowd is what is needed to make life liveable, Jason Borger’s subtle keyboard skills tease out the melody, stripping it down to its core and allowing the song to sigh. Tim Mooney and bassist Dan Pearson play percussion on Myopic Bookstore. It’s a song with references to Saul Bellow and Dinosaur Jr and the escape into art as a solace from life’s problems.
They encore with Firefly, the beautiful melody wrapping itself around the tale of the fleeting nature of love. Eitzel is laughing, the band cracking jokes at his expense. The chemistry between bandmates with a shared history is palpable. Eitzel starts to play Johnny Mathis’ Feet, but he gets distracted by someone in the bar. Vudi starts to rip some chords from his guitar and they lurch into Bad Liquor, the sound of your worst hangover sculpted in sound.
Then they are gone, leaving their audience feeling lucky to have seen them one last time.