A couple months ago, I noticed that Glen Tilbrook of Squeeze and Nick Lowe would both be performing at the Boulton Center in Bay Shore, New York, in August. I can't go to every show that comes down the pike and some times I have to make tough decisions. Having seen Nick a couple years ago at Town Hall and not having seen Tilbrook (or Squeeze) in five or six years, I suggested to my wife Linda that we opt for the Tilbrook show -- very reluctantly passing on Nick. It wasn't long before something began to gnaw at me. I had to see Nick again. I noticed that he had a few other gigs lined up in the area and we decided that we would catch him at the Out of Doors at Lincoln Center series on August 10. A schedule of summer shows I had picked up at a WFUV event had Nick paired with the Crickets. I had gotten it into my head that Nick would come out and do a solo acoustic set, after which he would be joined by the Crickets and stand in for Buddy Holly. And how cool would that be?
As it happened, there were no Crickets. Nick came on alone with an acoustic guitar after stellar sets by Sleepy Labeef (with guitar hero James Burton) and Jason Isbell from the Drive-By Truckers. He began his set with a lovely rendition of "Where Is My Everything" from the 1994 release The Impossible Bird. The set consisted mostly of the intimate, sweet, and occasionally acerbic set pieces/character studies he has released since that CD -- "She’s Got Soul," "Rome Wasn’t Build in a Day," "Long Limbed Girl," "I Trained Her to Love Me" (one of the acerbic ones), "Somebody Cares For Me," "Lately I Let Things Slide." About halfway through the set I asked my sister Diana, whom I’d invited to take in the show with us, how she was enjoying it. The word she used was "beautiful." Then she told me that a friend hers had an arts and culture website and suggested that I post a review of the show. I told her that I hadn’t been taking notes (i.e., writing down the titles of the songs performed) so I wasn't sure if I would be prepared to write a review. Then I hit on the idea of just padding the piece with a little bit on my 33 years as Nick Lowe fan.
At first I did not want to like Nick Lowe. In 1978, I was big into prog rock -- Yes, Genesis, ELP, all those behemoths. The ever-outspoken Nick came out with a statement as to how those bands were "about as exciting as used tissue." I dismissed him as a punk with little to no music talent -- not having heard a note of his music. Then I heard "So It Goes" on WNEW and I thought that it was actually pretty good. A year later "Cruel to Be Kind" was all over the radio and I thought it was very good. Nick was forcing me to like him, damn him. When Seconds of Pleasure came out, resistance was futile. I was a full-fledge fan of Nick Lowe and -- as part of the package deal -- Dave Edmunds.
I first saw Nick live with at the Palladium in 1982. He had a rockin’ band that included Martin Belmont, the guitarist from Graham Parker's Rumour, and soulful singer/keyboardist Paul Carrack, formerly of Ace and Squeeze. It occurred to me that, had Nick been accompanied by a band at Lincoln Center, those "beautiful" songs may have given way to more rocking fare. Of course, I would have enjoyed that but it seems that -- like Nick -- I have come to appreciate songcraft over rock-and-roll attitude. I was happy to sit and marvel at the songcraft and poignancy of those lovely set pieces. Don’t get me wrong. I still love to rock and was glad to hear the oldies that Nick is expected to break out: "I Knew the Bride," "What’s So Funny About Peace, and Love, and Understanding," "When I Write the Book," "Cruel to Be Kind," and "Heart."
I remember Nick having been described as a cynic with a heart of gold. He had rock and roll swagger -- and a sentimental streak a mile wide. That was apparent as far back as "You Make Me" from Labour of Lust and may actually go back to his days in Brinsley Schwartz. I think that Nick began in earnest his transition from the brash/snotty new waver rocker nicknamed Basher to the crooner he would become with 1982's Nick the Knife. That album includes the sweet/sad "Raining," which Nick crooned so sweetly at the Lincoln Center show. When he lost his major label deal in the nineties, all bets were off. With the release of the aforementioned The Impossible Bird, on the independent Upstart Label, he began to settle into that elder statesmen/country gentleman persona he now carries as naturally as walking.
The transition is complete. Nick is one of Garrison Keillor's favorite songwriters and a frequent guest on Prairie Home Companion. Who would have seen that coming in 1978? I think that his losing that major label deal, the man who wrote such indictments on the business as "Music for Money" and "They Called It Rock" was liberated, allowing him to follow his true musical path. And I think that Nick was ultimately all the better for that. As the Lincoln Center show proved, so are we.