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Concert Review: Nick Lowe Live at Housing Works Cafe, New York City July 20, 2007

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Second acts are increasingly common in rock and roll and there are no shortages of spandex-clad 55-year-olds trying to relive their glory days. Few have made the transition to elder pop-rock statesman as gracefully as Nick Lowe. The once brash new wave icon has evolved into a smooth purveyor of country-flavored soul music. His gifts for catchy pop melodies and irony-laden lyrics are alive and well as was in full evidence on Lowe’s brief stop in New York City to promote his stellar new album, At My Age.

In addition to a spot on Conan O’Brien last week, Lowe played a benefit concert on behalf of Housing Works, a charitable organization devoted to supporting the homeless living with HIV/AIDS. Alan Light, rock writer and editor of Spin Magazine organized the concert which took place at the Housing Works Used Book Café in New York’s Soho district. This charming book store has an interesting assortment of offbeat books, CDs, and rare LPs. There is also a café that serves wine and beer as well as more typical fare. The place is staffed entirely by volunteers and all the musicians performed without compensation.

At first glance, the place looks ill-suited for such an event. It’s a relatively long, narrow room bisected by two spiral staircases on either side. Yet it managed to hold nearly 300 people rather comfortably with about a third left standing. The vast majority of the audience was over the age of 40 and there was very little moshing in evidence.

The show was a triple bill and the two opening acts were unknown to most in the audience including myself. Renee Stahl is a singer songwriter with a beautiful voice and a penchant for melancholy pop (the name of her first album). She was accompanied by a guitarist who was introduced as Rich and a PC that laid down some drum tracks. She did a 25-minute set of mostly ballads. I thought she was quite good and she was very warmly received by the crowd.

Equally strong were a progressive blue grass band called King Wilkie from Virginia. They crammed six musicians onto a tiny stage including an upright bass player, a violinist, and a banjo player. The group played a 30-minute set of moving ballads and up-tempo country rockers. Their beautiful harmonies were also enthusiastically received by the audience.

After a rather lengthy and glowing introduction by Alan Light (a longtime fan) who named every band Nick ever played since grade school, Mr. Lowe took the stage to a thunderous greeting. This was a surprisingly raucous and wildly enthusiastic crowd. Everyone was taken by surprise, including Nick, who seemed genuinely moved by the reception. He played a solo acoustic set that lasted 55 minutes including two encores.

The set included just four songs off of his new album and nine other songs from various stages of his career. He was in excellent form. His voice has deepened and mellowed considerably, becoming the perfect instrument for the kind of country folk-inflected soul he has been playing for the last decade or so. Nick appears to have better control now than he ever did. He opened with “People Change,” a gentle ballad from the new album that segued immediately into "Soulful Wind", a pretty song from The Impossible Bird. “Long-Limbed Girl” is a song off the new recording that would not be out of place on a Rockpile album. It’s a gentle mid-tempo country-flavored song (almost Everly Brothers-like) about an older man looking back on a relationship and wondering what became of his old flame.

“All Men are Liars” (from Party of One) and “I Trained Her to Love Me” are humorous songs about unfaithful or lecherous men. In the former, Nick takes a jab at one time dance pop singer Rick Astley (“He had a big fat hit, it was ghastly”). The latter song recounts the plan of an embittered cynical man for “paying back womankind for all the grief I got” by serially breaking their hearts. It came across as much more tongue-in- cheek than it does on the album and the audience was laughing along which seemed to please Mr. Lowe.

A highlight for me was a heartfelt rendition of “What’s So Funny about Peace, Love and Understanding,” a much covered rocker made famous by Elvis Costello. Steve Earle, the Holmes Brothers, and Keb’ Mo’ are among the other artists who have done interesting takes. The song was written in the '70s as a gentle poke at humorless hippies, but has become something of an anti-war anthem in recent years (“Where are the strong and who are the trusted?”). It was in this context that Nick sang it, as a sincere ballad without a hint of irony.

Another real treat was a very soulful cover of an old obscure '60s R&B nugget, “Losing Boy,” originally written and performed by Eddy G. Giles. Lowe also tossed in a few rockers including the encore “I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock and Roll)” and “Heart of the City”. The latter song, perhaps the closest Nick ever came to punk, was the only time that I really wished that he had a kick ass band behind him. Check out this scorching clip and you’ll see what I mean. The one surprise was that Lowe didn’t play “The Club” — the song off of his new album that has garnered the most airplay and is the closest thing to a single.

After the first encore, the organizers tried very hard to bring the concert to an end, but the crowd clapped and hollered for about 10 minutes and finally Nick relented. He closed a magnificent set with “Beast in Me” (from The Impossible Bird). Afterwards, Lowe graciously stuck around for quite a while chatting with people and signing copies of his new CD. There is a special bond that is forged between older artists in mid-career and longtime loyal fans. In an intimate setting like this, it can create a magical musical experience for both audience and performer.

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  • Holly Hughes

    Cool review, Dave! Boy, do I wish I’d been in New York that night; you can bet I’d have been there rocking out along with you. Nick Lowe shows so much integrity these days, and I for one am glad that his enormous — and underrated — songwriting gifts still find an audience.

  • Artifact

    Nice review, I love that venue. They do a nice job coordinating an eclectic line up! As it should be.