In a man-on-the-street poll of British new wave pop-rock artists, Elvis Costello might be the more recognizable name to the average Joe, but, over the years, when compared album for album, Nick Lowe can easily match him when it comes to consistency and quality of songwriting.
So when Nick Lowe decides to play a handful of solo acoustic dates in the US, it doesn’t even require a second thought; you go.
Looking like a taller, ganglier Woody Allen, opener Bill Kirchen began his set with “Girlfriend” (“Be my wife and girlfriend, with a capital ‘G’”), from his 1999 Hightone Records album, Raise A Ruckus. Upon its completion, he described himself to the crowd as a “diesel-billy” artist. “I made up the category myself,” he admitted, “but, that way, there’s no competition in the field!”
He needn’t really have introduced himself to most of the folks in the audience; Kirchen is based out of the DC area and is a staple of the local venues, so he was essentially playing to a hometown crowd. A former member of Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen, Kirchen played on the classic “Hot Rod Lincoln”; he’s also a well-respected solo artist, but what doubtlessly led him to tonight’s gig was that he played on Lowe’s Party of One and The Impossible Bird albums. In addition, he toured as a member of Nick Lowe’s band, the Impossible Birds.
“I don’t have too many angst-ridden songs where you have to bite the table cloth,” he observed, then adding, “but this is definitely one of them.” He then proceeded to perform “Man in the Bottom of the Well”, also from Raise A Ruckus. At its completion, Kirchen admitted, “That song even depresses me . . . and I helped write it!”
“Putting together the set list for tonight,” he continued, “I said to myself, well, I’d better put in the usual couple of Nick Lowe songs, and . . . uh, wait, no, I guess I won’t.” After a laugh from the audience, Kirchen said, “Believe me, not playing Nick Lowe songs seriously cuts into my oeuvre.” He then made “I’m not worthy” motions in the direction of the backstage door.
Later, as his set began to near its close, he said, “Well, since I can’t play any Nick Lowe songs, I’ll have to play a few songs from my other two heroes,” then launched into a version of Hank Williams’ “They’ll Never Take Her Love From Me”. Instead of following it with another cover as promised, though, Kirchen opted to perform his Grammy Award-nominated composition, “Poultry in Motion”. He then closed the set with a rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb Blues”.
The turnaround time between Kirchen and Lowe was negligible, owing mostly to the fact that both fellows were performing in a solo capacity. When Lowe strode onto the stage, there was little question that he was not only an elder statesman of British pop/rock (and, now, alt-country) but, arguably, one of the coolest people in the room.
After opening with “There Will Never Be Any Peace (Until God Sits Down At The Conference Table)”, Lowe greeted the audience. He admitted that, although he was glad to be back in the area and playing for them, the harsh reality of the situation was that he was, indeed, there to promote his 2001 release on Yep Records. Lowe said that, in a conversation he once had with Carl Smith a.k.a. “Mr. Country”, he was told, “Never talk about your last album . . . only about your latest.” With a smile, he added, “So I’d like to remind you of my latest album, The Convincer.”
Lowe stuck with relatively recent material with the first part of the show, visiting The Impossible Bird (“Soulful Wind”), Party of One (“What’s Shakin’ On The Hill”), The Convincer (“Has She Got a Friend?”, “Lately I’ve Let Things Slide”), and Dig My Mood (“Faithless Lover”).
After a cover of the Isaac Hayes/David Porter classic, “Love Is After Me”, he told an anecdote about how he came to write The Convincer‘s “Indian Queens”. (To make a long story short, Lowe had been driving home from Cornwall, saw the name on an exit, and, during the course of the four hour drive home, the song basically wrote itself.) From there, Lowe broke out an incredible version of the song that gave him his 15 minutes of chart fame, “Cruel to Be Kind”. Longtime time fans might’ve been afraid to admit that they wanted to hear it . . . since, after all, there’s a hell of a lot more to Nick Lowe than “Cruel to Be Kind” . . . but it’s hard to imagine anyone was upset about it; the performance was exemplary.
As the show continued, so did the classics. After “Man That I’ve Become”, from Dig My Mood, there followed “She Don’t Love Nobody”, from The Rose of England, and “Without Love”, from Labour Of Lust.
The transcendent moment of the concert, however, was “You Inspire Me”. The combination of the sound system, the lyrics, and the performance on solo guitar combined perfectly to create a song to rival the sheer sentimentality of Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable”. I can’t speak for the entire audience, but I was absolutely swept up in the moment. Not bad for a song that I’d probably only heard maybe twice before.
After a rollicking version of “I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock ‘n’ Roll)”, Lowe closed the set with the decidedly downbeat “The Beast in Me”. But, as with any good showman, he only left the stage for a few moments before returning for the inevitable encore.
There were requests from the audience, of course. Lowe’s amiable manner made that somewhat inevitable. “I can assure you,” he told one forlorn fellow, “‘Switchboard Susan’ sounds really, really bad on acoustic guitar. I’m only telling you this because I love you. But thank you very much for requesting it, anyway.”
Encore #1 began with a cover of Arthur Alexander’s “Lonely Just Like Me” (a demo of which can be found on Lowe’s box set, The Doings), then closed with Lowe’s most famous composition, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding?”
When Lowe returned for Encore #2, he had Bill Kirchen in tow, and, together, the pair performed Johnny Horton’s “I’m Coming Home” and Lowe’s own “Lover Don’t Go” before closing the evening’s proceedings with “Half a Boy, Half a Man”.
An unnamed audience member was, after the show, overheard saying, “I just didn’t feel like things really got going until Bill came out on stage and joined him.” Okay, y’know what? It was an acoustic show, not the Ozzfest. What did you expect?