It’s a terrific thing that one of the best songwriters and most heartfelt singers of the last four decades can come and play the back room of a local pub. Much as he’s sticking to the water this evening, it’s hardly an incongruous venue for Mark Eitzel though – so many of the characters in his songs inhabit a dusty, shadow- and often drink-filled world.
So powerful is Eitzel’s voice that there can be a tinge of regret when he does a full band show. Of course that wasn’t a complaint when the band was American Music Club, and there’s no complaint here. The assembled musicians are the sort of experienced hands that know how to rein back and then build just the right controlled, noisy chaos to add a richness and edge to the beautifully crafted songs. It helps that Bernard Butler is among them. While he produced and played on Eitzel’s most recent album, it’s still a bit of a surprise when he steps on stage a couple of songs in. But presumably he’s pretty much able you do what he wants these days and you imagine he was an American Music Club fan back in the day. So he must’ve fancied wandering round the country in gun for hire mode. With his skinny black polo neck and the proper rock guitarist lines encroaching onto his face, he does look a bit more rockstar than the others. But he does successfully cede centre stage, while still adding some fascinating textures, from sensitive rock noodling to managing to successfully fake a pedal steel sound from his flame-red axe.
Which just serves as a contrast to highlight Eitzel’s own charms – his self-deprecating, slightly spiky, humour providing a bit of bathos to frame songs that are full of emotion, wise lines and not-always-lovingly drawn potraits of people who have drifted to the margins one way or another. He mixes American Music Club favourites with a selection of new songs, and for all that there are plenty in the audience who appreciate the familiarity of the old stuff (one of us gets a gentle sideswipe for calling out for Western Sky – he also gets Western Sky played though…), Eitzel’s pen is still strong and there’s just as much to hang on to and explore in the new material. And of course there’s the voice. There’s a tendency amongst what can be a bit of an indie crowd to distrust a singer that doesn’t leave any distance, who goes full-on for emotion, fearing that it might all get a bit sickly. But Eitzel is just too good to resist, he lays it all out there but without sentimentality, all bruised and tattered edges and optimistic sadness.
So it is a real treat to have Eitzel out here on the edge of town still giving an audience who now have a fair few miles on the clock themselves (I felt quite young for once…) a wonderful evening.