Somewhere there’s a better, fairer parallel universe where musicians are rewarded according to the scale of their talent. In that idealised realm, Mark Eitzel is a bona fide megastar, slaying capacity crowds across the world’s arenas when not busy preparing another bestselling album.
Back in this reality, alas, the erstwhile American Music Club frontman’s existence isn’t quite as gilded. Tonight’s compact venue seems better-suited for hosting dues-paying up-and-comers than certified heroes of American ‘alternative’ rock, a selective club Eitzel undoubtedly belongs to. Back in the late 80’s and early 90’s, San Francisco-based American Music Club were briefly feted as equals of – relatively speaking – kindred spirits R.E.M., only to watch the Athens, Georgia quartet’s capacity for positivity enable them to take off whilst AMC’s more troubled, brooding take on the same classic rock influences was doomed to remain a cult concern. Eitzel’s solo career has gradually drifted towards the margins. Last year’s Don’t Be a Stranger (easily equal to 2009’s twilit, criminally underappreciated solo highpoint Klamath) saw Eitzel return to a state-of-the-art studio after years of meagre recording budgets, an upgrade made possible by a friend netting an unexpected windfall, rather than a record label wise enough to invest in major talent whose timeless gifts just doesn’t happen to correspond with passing trends.
If the 54-year old songwriter is bitter about this turn of events, he hides it well. Generously bearded, dressed like the elder brother of Tom Waits’ bar-hopping jazzbo 70’s incarnation in a flat-cap and a jacket and trousers that have seen better days, and backed by a tight three-piece combo of stand-up bass, keyboards and drums, Eitzel’s the embodiment of good cheer tonight. In stark contrast to the downbeat songwriting that built his reputation, Eitzel turns out to be almost as adept at stand-up comedy as he is at singing. Practically every number is preceded by a rambling but hugely compelling anecdote from Eitzel’s eventful life, the best of which cast light on the origins of the songs. Eitzel’s account of setting up a friend on a date with his mentally unstable stalker is hilarious, but injects a dose of gut-wrenching poignancy into the tough truthfulness of ‘We All Have to Find Our Own Way Out’, the song the evening, which ended up with the damaged woman curled up on a rainy street, beyond anyone’s help or kindness, inspired.
If Eitzel’s comedy muscles are in rude form, his never less than formidable abilities as a singer also seem be intensifying with age. Whatever the mystery liquid that Eitzel’s sipping from a coffee mug is, it must be working wonders on his pipes: the voice is a bit cracked around the edges, but sounds stronger than ever, capable to climb effortless from gentle croon to a full-on, emotive wail. Eitzel attacks the challenging melody of the wounded, majestic opener ‘What Holds the World Together’ (“I have no idea what holds the world together”, Eitzel quips to ripples of laughter; I’m not sure it was meant as a joke) with a gusto some would spare for the final encores, and most would never be able to conjure in the first place. The beefed-up take on the sardonic ‘Patriot’s Heart’ – justifying Rolling Stone magazine’s nomination of Eitzel as the finest living lyricist in rock – makes the American Music Club original sound tame. The portrait of the seedy flipside of rock ‘n’ roll glamour on ‘I Love You but You’re Dead’ is delivered as a fiery rap. But just about everything tonight is a highlight: the oompah-hued take on Klamath’s ‘Why I’m Bullshit’ – as brilliant as its title – is a rare misstep.
Maybe Eitzel’s figured out that when it comes to listeners, it’s the quality not quantity that counts. Unimpressive in scale as it may be, the audience tonight hangs on to every word, clearly dedicated followers in for the long haul. On this spectacular form, Eitzel might even be slowly inching himself towards the fan count of a mainstream figure: I entered the venue with some interest in the man’s music, and left it as a bona fide fan.