Billy McCarthy has already lived a bigger life than almost any of his peers, and shows no signs of slowing down. When Augustines’ singer-songwriter gets to Juarez, midway through tonight’s set, its key lines – ‘I got a drunk for a mother/Got a saint for a brother’ – are a repeated, purging mantra. Most here know the tragic history being memorialised, of an addict mother who fatally overdosed when he was 19, and his brother James’s 2009 suicide after solitary confinement in Folsom Prison, despite his schizophrenia.
McCarthy’s astonishing solo shows in February showed that wasn’t the half of it. “After many hours of being sodomised and abused by this weird goth girl…” went a typical line, as he regaled fans in packed pub upper rooms with his bruising, rollicking, painful, bohemian existence, riding the rails across the US, living homeless in airports, working on a chain-gang, and “chasing my spirit animal doing drugs with the Mexican cops”. In the gentrified indie scene they’re uncomfortably part of, it’s a one-off CV, and the source of Augustines’ desperate, raw passion, which often brings McCarthy to tears. No wonder there’s an Augustines film on the way.
The band even managed to make their biggest UK gig to date, at the Roundhouse in London in 2014, intimately intense, plunging unplugged into the crowd. Their music, though, with its heavy echoes of U2 circa The Joshua Tree and McCarthy’s Springsteen-scale vocals, is built for the big stage, and this UK stopover follows arena shows as European support to Noel Gallagher, whose “crazy-ass fans” seem to have made a mixed impression on McCarthy. “Fuck you, caveman!” he yells, flashbacking to an encounter with Noel’s post-Oasis army.
The Electric Ballroom is a great, underused rock venue, but doesn’t feel quite right tonight. McCarthy seems relatively subdued, not talking much, playing the songs pretty straight. He leads the crowd in mass, a cappella singing of Now You Are Free’s heart-rending, confessional chorus – ‘What am I running from?/Myself and everyone…’ – and the fervent fanbase they’ve built the best way, gig by gig, take over on Weary Eyes. ‘Well baby, all things fade away it seems,’ he observes with quiet poetry on Kid You’re On Your Own. It’s a line which is thinner on the ground than before on upcoming third album This Is Your Life – on first impressions, a record where McCarthy’s understandable desire to uplift sometimes comes unmoored from the specific pain being healed; and that way lies Coldplay, blandness Augustines are the fierce opposite of at their best.
McCarthy takes off the hat that’s been hiding his open-book face for the great B-side Ballad Of A Patient Man, where he roars about ‘pumping blood’ and Rob Allen’s drums power forcefully. During the encore, keyboardist-guitarist Eric Sanderson, McCarthy’s right-hand man since their previous, doomed band Pela, is by his side as he raises his guitar, wild-haired, and sings another surging anthem, Nothing To Lose But Your Head.
There’s a full tour to come, and maybe the new album needs time to settle in. But tonight feels like an uncertain halfway point between the pure-hearted outpourings of McCarthy’s solo shows and Augustines’ best early songs, and the wider, vaguer mainstream that’s tantalisingly in reach. The pain described in 2011’s debut Rise Ye Sunken Ships seems happily further away now. McCarthy may be starting to believe that life can be good. By their own full-on standards, Augustines feel caught between two stools. More than most, they deserve to find their footing and prosper.