By Jay Bennett
"As I walk through / This wicked world / Searching for light in the darkness of insanity." Knowing I'd soon hear those lyrics being sung by Nick Lowe buoyed me Tuesday night as I sat watching a 90-minute performance staged by two politicians who dodged questions, offered empty promises, took cheap shots and, in the case of Arizona's dubiously favorite son, espoused "record over rhetoric."
In his own 90-minute solo performance Tuesday at the Rhythm Room, Lowe's record spoke for itself. The gracefully aging British singer/songwriter and producer of essential early records by Elvis Costello, The Damned and others put on an excellently sparse concert, strumming simple chords on an acoustic guitar, letting his sometimes poignant, sometimes witty lyrics and his voice be the stars of the show.
The only other time I'd seen Lowe was in 2002, months after 9/11. When he performed a hushed version of his signature tune, "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding," that night in Chicago, some folks were in tears.
"And as I walked on / Through troubled times / My spirit gets so downhearted sometimes / So where are the strong? / And who are the trusted? / And where is the harmony? / Sweet harmony." Fitting, I guess, that Nick Lowe chose this election season to get back on the road singing about peace and understanding. I don't know, perhaps it was just coincidence. I wanted to ask him after the show, as the ever-gracious "English gentleman of rock 'n' roll" took lots of time to chat with fans outside the club as the traffic on Indian School whizzed by. Sadly, he was being held hostage by some boring hipsters who prattled on about The Move and a Small Faces show at the Cavern Club that they'd read about.
"And each time I feel like this inside / There's one thing I want to know / What's so funny 'bout peace, love, and understanding?" I think the notion wasn't lost on the packed Rhythm Room crowd, which was held in silent, rapt attention during "Peace, Love, and Understanding" and other reflective Lowe classics such as "The Beast in Me" (the song, as sung by Johnny Cash, that turned me onto Nick Lowe in the early '90s), "Lately I've Let Things Slide," "The Kind of Man I've Become," and show opener "People Change."
At other times, the graying crowd sang along to his upbeat hits "Cruel to Be Kind," "When I Write the Book," and "I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock 'n' Roll)" and chuckled at "All Men Are Liars," in which Lowe sang: "Do you remember Rick Astley? / He had a big, fat hit / It was ghastly."
Lowe said he couldn't remember the last time he'd been in Phoenix — "'The Cauldron," as some of us musicians in West London used to call it." He thought it might have been "30 years, back when we played the Enormo-dome opening for the dinosaurs of rock. Now, I'm one of those dinosaurs." But he was reminded by an audience member that it had been 12 years since he last entertained a Valley crowd.
He also apologized ahead of time for playing one new song. "I feel your pain. But the good thing about my songs is that they're all about 2 1/2 minutes," he said before strumming the quiet "I Read A Lot," a song that complements his late-era repertoire of country-soul ballads about loneliness, aging, and regret. "I read a lot / in my world of fantasy / population: one / me," he sang.
Lowe's going to be 60 years old in 2009, and clearly his rock 'n' pop days are behind him. So, while his voice isn't as strong as it was during his hit-making days, it still sounds great, especially in an unplugged setting, where it's all about the subtleties of his unique crooning.
(Photos by Laura Hahnefeld)
His set was virtually unchanged from when I saw him in 2002, save for a couple of tunes from his latest record, the hit-and-miss At My Age. He did pull out what I consider a special treat for the first song of his three-song encore, "Heart of the City." The song, from his first single, way back in 1976, is one my favorite songs, a driving two-chord rocker in the vein of the Modern Lovers' "Roadrunner." Lowe's stripped-down version on Tuesday night was totally unexpected and a thrill to hear.
It was a really cool show and a great venue for such a concert. The tiny Rhythm Room truly enhanced the intimacy of the performance. I feel pretty lucky that Lowe visited in "The Cauldron" Tuesday night, considering that he rarely tours and that the current tour is stopping in only nine U.S. cities before Lowe does some dates in Europe.
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The set list:
1. "People Change" 2. "Soulful Wind" 3. "When I Write the Book" 4. "What's Shakin' on the Hill" 5. "Long-Limbed Girl" 6. "Lately I've Let Things Slide" 7. "Has She Got a Friend?" 8. "All Men Are Liars" 9. "I Trained Her to Love Me" 10. "I Read A Lot" 11. "Cruel to Be Kind" 12. "The Kind of Man That I've Become" 13. "I Live on a Battlefield" 14. "Hope for Us All" 15. "Without Love" 16. "Rome Wasn't Built in a Day" 17. "I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock and Roll)" 18. "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding"
19. "Heart of the City" 20. "Kidnapper" (duet with opening act Paul Cebar) 21. "The Beast in Me"