A couple of weeks ago on his blog, Ethan Miller announced that, after two years of pre-production for an album with Rick Rubin, Howlin Rain would be releasing a new EP to coincide with their forthcoming European tour.

A couple of weeks ago on his blog, Ethan Miller announced that, after two years of pre-production for an album with Rick Rubin, Howlin Rain would be releasing a new EP to coincide with their forthcoming European tour.

“The Good Life” came out online last week, led off by the title track, an organ-heavy thudder whose excellence was not, oddly, undermined by its vague resemblance to The Dead Weather. They had a crack at “Burning Of The Midnight Lamp”, too, a pretty brave effort under the circumstances.

At the London show last night, though, the EP doesn’t seem to be available, and “The Good Life” doesn’t make it onto the setlist. It’s as if the whole thing was borne of a desperate desire to get some music out, and that the real focus, the real work, remains that long-gestating third album. As a consequence, Howlin Rain only play three old songs: “Dancers At The End Of Time”, “Lord Have Mercy” (slightly misfiring tempo change, as ever) and a fantastic closing jam on “Calling Lightning Part Two”.

For the rest, Miller rolls out a bunch of excellent new songs, many with a heavier than ever emphasis on Joel Robinow’s keyboards. Robinow is the only survivor from the last Howlin Rain iteration; now, Miller is backed by a limber, superior rhythm section. It’s Robinow who catches the eye, though – a little Brian Auger, a little early Jon Lord, a whole lot of Mark Stein from Vanilla Fudge, and a decent singer, too.

Up against this, Miller seems more restrained than before, so that his own voice feels more controlled; he doesn’t seem to be shredding his larynx at the climax of each song. His songwriting, though, continues to evolve in jazzy, dynamic new ways, and the general strength and intuition of his new band only help. Consequently, the highlight of their first UK show in two years is a lengthy new track with Robinow on twin lead guitar, a blasting, intricate beast with deep affiliations to The Allman Brothers Band.

It would be nice if I could write as forensically about Wooden Shjips, headlining here, but their evolution is not so pointed. Songs change – “We Ask You To Ride” is fuller and more oceanic than I’ve ever heard it before – but the aesthetic, that bouncing, endless droneride, remains reassuringly constant. What’s really striking this time, though, is how complete and insulated their soundworld is now: they’re so much of themselves that the kneejerk references to Spacemen 3, Neu!, The Doors and so on seem relatively irrelevant. Not that the Relentless Garage is the O2 or anything, but they have a presence, a grandeur, as well; a sense that their subterranean music is expanding outwards without losing any of its countercultural potency.

What’s interesting, too, is how sharing a bill with Ripley’s other band, Moon Duo, shifts attention away from his consistently transporting guitar solos, and towards the dogged brilliance of his rhythm section. Once again, it crosses my mind what on earth these players did before they formed Wooden Shjips. If anyone has any details, I’d be fascinated to find out.