I have only one Nick Lowe song on my iPod. It’s called “Lately I’ve Let Things Slide,” from his 2001 album The Convincer. I downloaded it as a bonus track I got from Yep Roc Records after I purchased a Robyn Hitchcock CD (Goodnight, Oslo). I received got some other good stuff, too—John Doe, Dave Alvin, and more—and loaded them all on the iPod for the morning walk.

Bowi and recordI became a Nick Lowe fan a long time ago, but I, too, have let things slide and almost everything I have is older stuff on vinyl, including a copy of his first EP. He called it Bowi in response to David Bowie’s Low, a bit of cheekiness that still makes me laugh. The only Nick Lowe CD I own is a best-of collection (Basher). It is great stuff—funny, tuneful, loaded with hooks . . . why, you could even call it pure pop for now people.

That, of course, was the American title for an altered version of the album Lowe released in Britain as Jesus of Cool. The record company executives in the United States must have blanched when they first heard the proposed title back in 1974, with the country only eight years removed from the mass record burnings prompted when John Lennon compared the Beatles to the Son of God, so they changed the title. They should have realized that a few record burnings might have done wonders for Lowe’s visibility in this country. Despite his accomplishments—Lowe produced Elvis Costello’s early albums and the Pretenders’ first single, he was a member of pub-rock standard-setters Rockpile, he wrote the new-wave anthem “(What’s So Funny ‘bout) Peace, Love and Understanding”—he still managed to stay pretty much below the radar in the U.S., 1979’s quasi-hit “Cruel to be Kind” notwithstanding.

Last Sunday I got a chance to attend my first Nick Lowe performance in years. I had seen him perform with his “Cowboy Outfit” back in 1985 when he opened for Costello on the Farewell, Cruel World tour in Worcester, Massachusetts, and I saw him again in 1996 when his Impossible Bird tour hit the Bayou in Washington, D.C. A few months ago my friend Kyle had tipped me off that Lowe was going to appear at the old Colonial Theater in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, the same venue that provided the setting for a climatic scene in the original version of The Blob. Who could resist an opportunity like that? Especially when Lowe’s opening act would be Bill Kirchen, late of Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. Kirchen had also played guitar for Lowe on the Impossible Bird album and tour.

lowe ticketSo Kyle, my wife and I headed off to Phoenixville. It seemed like a pleasant little town, with a few comfortable-looking bars on the main drag (as well as a used-book store, which was unfortunately closed). We managed to score seats in the second row in the old theater, comfortably cocooned within our own demographic. No young people here, just survivors from the Age of Vinyl making their way, like us, through the MP3 era and beyond.

I don’t think any of us looked as old as Bill Kirchen (who was only 61, it turns out). He didn’t act old, though, and he did a fine set, although I’m not sure that the electric guitar works so well all by itself. It cries out for companionship from bass and drums. Kirchen did have fun with the encore, a version of Commander Cody’s “Hot Rod Lincoln” that he used as an excuse to fire off licks made famous by a whole herd of legendary guitarists, from Chuck Berry to Jimi Hendrix. He seemed to have a good time.

After a short break Nick Lowe climbed onstage and strapped on an acoustic Gibson guitar. It was a little startling to see him. At 60 years old he was rail-thin, completely white haired and wearing a big pair of dark-rimmed glasses. He was clothed in a dress shirt and pants best described as “slacks.” The only thing missing was a sweater vest. It wasn’t exactly a rock-and-roll kind of look—more like a grandpa.

No doubt Lowe was perfectly aware of this, and he started out with a song called “People Change.” “People change/That’s the long and short of it/Prepare yourself for it/Or get bit/People change.” Nick Lowe had changed alright—but in a good way, aged like wine or whiskey. He was no longer the straggly-haired, sardonic pub rocker who wrote sharp-edged songs about the Bay City Rollers or the silent-film star whose body was eaten by her starving dachshund (“She was a winner/Who became the doggy’s dinner”). I wouldn’t say he’s softened, but he’s turned his jaundiced eye inward and become more rueful and introspective. Even the pop songs from his past, “Cruel to Be Kind,” “All Men are Liars” and “(What’s so Funny ’bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding,” arrived lightly dusted with melancholy and regret.

Bill 'n' Nick. Photo by Kyle Weaver.

Bill 'n' Nick. Photo by Kyle Weaver.

He played other upbeat stuff, too, including “Ragin’ Eyes,” “Without Love,” and “I Knew the Bride” (joined onstage by Kirchen on guitar), so don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t all gloom and doom. He sounded good, too. At one point he apologized about the “croakiness” of his voice, but he needed no apologies. He delivered his songs of sadness and betrayal with a smooth intimacy that mixed crooning with country.

He was also funny. Early in the show he launched into a spiel about how wonderful his previous night’s audience had been, but told us that his “show biz sense” told him we were going to be even better. I’m sure he delivers a variation of the same speech every night, but his self-mocking irony just made it more amusing. Later he introduced a “new song” with a speech about how much he hates hearing performers play new material. The song was titled “I Read a Lot,” and it had the heart-aching quality of a classic country song.

For the obligatory encore Lowe performed “The Beast in Me,” a song he had originally written for his former father-in-law, Johnny Cash. The old Nick Lowe might have turned it into a joke, but for the twenty-first century version it was an unblinking look into the abyss that lies within, the kind of song that makes you reach for either the whiskey bottle or the razor blade.

Nick Lowe—he’s not just for kids any more. People change.

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