"Are you one of those angels/Who went all the way to Hell?'' The query, posed in the first song Grant Hart performed Thursday night at the Black Cat Backstage, is not derived from the singer-guitarist's own life. He's experienced some rough years since the 1987 breakup of Husker Du, his best-known band, and at this instant his career is about as hot as his native Minnesota. But Hart's interest in fallen angels, who returned in the 80-minute set's final song, is part of a work-in-progress: a rock adaptation of Milton's "Paradise Lost.''
Punk purists who abandoned Husker Du when its style mellowed slightly should see Hart now. He performed more than half the show solo, venturing into country, folk and old-timey pop. (One of his newer songs, "California Zephyr,'' could end up in Amtrak commercial.) He also told corny jokes and did credible impressions of Neil Young and Maurice Chevalier.
None of this seemed calculated. Indeed, Hart's attitude was as punk as ever: He abandoned some tunes after a few moments; begged for requests only to reject many of them; and cracked up when he muffed chord changes, notably during "Sorry Somehow.'' But the musician's ramshackle approach wasn't as self-defeating as it might have appeared. After tauntingly asking "What's the worst song I could do?," Hart launched into "2541,'' actually one of his best post-Huskers numbers.
Hart was eventually joined by a three-piece band, which added needed roar (and unnecessary guitar solos) to such Huskers standards as "Flexible Flyer'' and "Pink Turns to Blue.'' (The latter song is about a drug OD, at one point not an abstract topic for its composer.) While the backing trio provided muscle, its arrival didn't end the false starts and discursive raps, which encompassed the TSA, Julian Assange and Hart's status as Harold Stassen's former paper boy. That's not quite fallen-angel stuff, but the journey from wall-of-noise punk to eclectic troubadour is quite a pilgrim's progress.