Finishing up the European leg of his tour, Nick Lowe saunters on stage, solo, with his acoustic guitar in front of a reservedVicar Streetaudience, seated at round tables on the ground floor. No longer happy to drift on the nostalgia of his 70’s heyday, Lowe has long left behind his career as producer and mentor to the most successful exponents of British New Wave (Elvis Costello & The Attractions, Squeeze) and, for almost 25 years, has entrenched himself in American roots music.
Opening with ‘Stoplight Roses’ from his latest release, The Old Magic, Lowe’s warm, mellow voice and austere instrumentation cut an arresting presence. It’s clear that, like Richard Hawley, Lowe draws from a songwriting well that projects a romantic view of loneliness; mainly American country songwriters and performers such as George Jones, Ray Price and Patsy Cline. A stunning, styled rendition of ‘Heart’, a song by Lowe’s former band Rockpile, concludes Lowe’s two- song solo set. As Lowe starts into ‘What Lack of Love Has Done’ from 1998’s Dig My Mood his band, including support act Geraint Watkins on keys, make their way on stage, which makes for a smooth change in dynamics early in the set.
The sheer breath of Lowe’s songbook comes into full force in the middle section of the set when ‘I Read A Lot’, a sombre, slow- burning number from The Old Magic is followed immediately by ‘Cruel To Be Kind’, Lowe’s first big pop hit, which he recently performed withUS tour- mates Wilco. The chemistry of the band is most evident on the big pop numbers, namely ‘Cruel To Be Kind’ and ‘When I Write the Book’.
After the encore, Lowe and Watkins return on stage for a duet of Watkins’ ‘Only a Rose’ and a powerful performance of ‘When I Write the Book’, which, like ‘Cruel to Be Kind’, is when the band are at their most loose and playful. As if to further emphasize that he is not enslaved by the New Wave sound that he helped to define, Lowe’s acoustic, slow- tempo version of ‘(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding’ carries just as much weight on Lowe’s acoustic guitar and finds its place among his roots- influenced songbook and the youthful exuberance of the original studio version is side- stepped in favor of a version which casts Lowe as wiser, more mature man than the angry young man who originally wrote the tune.
It is, however, Lowe’s second encore which provides the night’s highlight. Walking on stage, solo, with his acoustic once again, Lowe performs a beautiful, measured version of ‘Alison’, a song produced by Lowe which was written by his former protégée, Elvis Costello. In a sense, it encapsulates Nick Lowe’s songwriting style and model; the well- worn Englishness of Ray Davies’sEnglandset to the American songbook of folk / country / soul music. The old magic, indeed.