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Nick Lowe was talking in between bites of chips after his Birchmere set Monday night about Rick Astley, he of the 1987 hit-cum-Internet whoopee cusion “Never Gonna Give You Up.” So ubiquitous was the tune that Lowe was still pissed off about it three years later, to the extent that he seems to get pissed off, which isn’t very much, when he slagged Astley, Biggie v. 2Pac style, in the song “All Men Are Liars”, which really does not confine its indictment to Astley, if you think about it. Anywho, it’s one of the 30 or so songs Lowe seems to keep in rotation for when he turns up at the Birchmere or the Barns of Wolf Trap each fall.
(For the spreadsheet keepers: He didn’t play it Monday night, when only half the 22-song set was repeated from his Wolf Trap gig at this time last year. That’s not so bad, even if the NPR webcast of his prior Birchmere show from three years ago busts him for recycling some stage patter. That’s just showbiz.)
Three years to give Astley his comeuppance, three years between Birchmere gigs — an eyeblink, in Lowe-time.
He’s got a band for his current U.S. tour, a luxury he hasn’t allowed himself in years because “the expense is eye-watering.” At risk of sounding like the sort of mouth-breathing philistine who bails on one of Bruce Springsteen’s solo acoustic evenings midway because the songs don’t “rock” enough, I’ll confess I’d hoped the presence of bass and drums would mean some approximation of the Jesus of Cool show, or the Rockpile show. Elvis Costello, Lowe’s most celebrated acolyte, has been a middle-aged crooner for a long time now, but he still rocks out when the spirit moves.
But ‘twas not to be: We got the late-period Nick showe, again — mature, tasteful, elegantly edged songs-as-weapons, lent more shading than propulsion by the contributions of the other players. He did get up to some Tennessee Two-style click-a-clack locomotion in “Has She Got a Friend” and “Soulful Wind”, but the point of reference there is the pompadoured 50s, not the jittery, New Wave 70s. Before, his celebrated, cynical solo debut, Jesus of Cool, Lowe emerged in Brinsley Schwartz, a pub rock outfit, playing songs that made him a throwback before he was twenty-five.
He’s a twinkly-eyed 61 now, with a lanky physique and a shock of fluffy white hair that makes him appear even more advanced. That voice, however, retains its rich, supple timbre. His show, like his albums, is over quickly; about 80 minutes. Not very long at all, for a headliner with a catalog as deep as the one he’s got.
But in all other ways, Nick Lowe takes his time. The third act of his career, wherein he’s styled himself a fine purveyor of lacerating country ballads, began in 1994, when we wrote “The Beast in Me” for his then-father-in-law, Johnny Cash, but knew it was too strong a tune not to record for himself, too. The funny thing is, Lowe was only his mid-forties then. Not young, certainly. But not old.
And not hurried. He releases music infrequently. His albums are typically spare, economical affairs, seldom lasting 40 minutes. The last one, At My Age, has been on the shelves for more than three years now, and a six-year gap preceded it. Speaking with Terry Gross on Fresh Air in 2007, Lowe said: “To write songs the way I did, I had to have an unlimited amount of time just to stare out the window.” He also made explicit what anyone who’s been paying attention would have inferred: that simple country & western songs are his favorite kind. “They’re surprisingly hard to write, those songs,” he told Gross. “To keep the message really direct, it’s really hard not to waffle and — what’s the word? — obfuscate.”
The new song he played Monday night, one he said he’s just recorded, was called “House for Sale.” It’s another somber, reflective tune about picking up the pieces and moving on. At last year’s show, he apologized, absurdly, for playing an unreleased one called “I Read a Lot.” Lowe’s written hopeful songs in this, the autumn of his years — Track 2 on At My Age is called “Hope For Us All”— but he keeps returning to themes of aging and decay, confronting them with dignity and wit. In a strange way, he actually seems more youthful and energetic in conversation with you than he does in his songs.
Before opening the encore of Monday’s Birchmere show with “Only a Rose,” a ballad by his keyboardist, Geraint Watkins, he mused, “So many songs, so little time.”
What? He had all the time in the world, as that Louis Armstrong-sung Bond theme goes. Actually, that would be a nice song for Lowe to cover.