IN TUNE: One of the rewards of following an inventive artist through his or her entire career is a show such as Lloyd Cole put on with his Small Ensemble at City Winery, the type that drew howls of delight for gems such as “So You’d Like to Save the World,” “2cv,” and “I’m Gone.” Means little if you don’t know him. But if you do….
Playing 28 songs, split by an intermission, Cole and his Small Ensemble left only seven, by his count, that they hadn’t rehearsed.
And although he was promoting his “Broken Record,” released last fall, the evening had more of a greatest-works feel.
Three guitars in tune, with the occasional banjo or mandolin, enriched the folksier numbers. Yet the trio still made slightly re-arranged versions of “Perfect Skin,” “Rattlesnakes” and “Lost Weekend” swing.
For all his shyness, Lloyd has always been engaging in a boyish way onstage – although what he called a Steinbeck-inspired moustache draws way too much unflattering attention to itself. But his gift has never been the patter. It’s in the words (“cheekbones like geometry and eyes like sin,” “still-life watercolor woman by a window….” and the entire “Rattlesnakes” — see below) as well as the music.
Cole has restored his catalog beautifully, polishing what were already impeccably crafted gems, spicing up a few others and leaving just the right amount of space for the nuances of his clever wordplay to take hold. The trio even made the second-set opener, “(Are You) Ready to Be Heartbroken,” and, later, “Forest Fire,” sound fresh, with Cole taking the Neil Clark lead as the latter built to its dramatic close.
After what seemed like sure-shot fame with the Commotions, Cole honed his skills, kept producing quality material as a solo act, but didn’t have overwhelming commercial success. Those who weren’t following closely wouldn’t have been blamed for thinking he’d fallen off the grid. Those who were witnessed a steadily increasing mastery of the craft.
Cole went indie before most artists, a move made by necessity that now looks prescient. He did “the troubadour thing,” as he calls solo touring, and has come out the other side able to teach much younger DIY-ers a thing or two. He is extremely active and adept online, refreshing his site with new material, journal entries, songs, interviews, and more, with a clean, inviting (and, yes, user-friendly) design.
Cole clearly understands the value of a loyalty that runs both ways. Engaging directly with his audience keeps him sharp, while followers feel truly vested in his work.
“Broken Record,” Cole’s first full-band album in years, was primarily financed in advance by fans, who got a bonus CD along with a pre-release edition — which he and his wife shipped themselves (the one part of the unique approach you can be sure he won’t repeat).
For those intimately familiar with Cole’s canon, the new material could take some getting used to. But that’s only because of the lyrical and melodic brilliance of “Trigger Happy,” “Perfect Skin,” and Saturday night’s encore-opener, “Undressed” – and even more recent mini-masterpieces, including “My Alibi,” which found all three in perfect stringed sync, and the wry “Woman In a Bar.”
In the intimate arrangements, Cole seemed to be going to the well a bit too often, in both the lyrical imagery and guitar progressions. “Broken Record,” with its various instruments and styles, actually sounds better itself than the stripped-down, for-trio versions.
Cole may have sensed that, turning a couple of the newer offerings into medleys, one of which deftly became a lovely version of Tim Hardin’s “Reason to Believe” (Was kind of odd that so few in the crowd reacted; could a song made popular by Rod Stewart already be obscure?)
Cole’s son, Will, for whom he wrote “Trigger Happy” when he was just a baby, enters NYU in the fall, the proud father announced.
“I’m not as young as I used to be,” he told the rapt crowd, “and neither are you.”
It proved the perfect intro to “Don’t Look Back,” one of the few truly wistful songs in his repertoire.
“Sometimes you hear a song and think that the songwriter wrote that for you,” Cole said later. “Well, this next song is NOT one of those songs.”
“My Other Life” certainly isn’t. It is, however, a haunting tune, with a James Ellroy-type story line that serves as metaphor for a man disconnected from himself. It also gave the trio an opportunity to take multi-stringed flight.
I admit: I miss Neil Clark. But Cole’s bookends, Mark Schwaber on acoustic guitar and mandolin, and Matt Cullen on banjo and acoustic guitar, have helped create a unique act, one wonderfully suited to his material. What fan would say “no” to a finish of “No More Love Songs,” “Like Lovers Do” and “Forest Fire,” followed by “Undressed” and “Lost Weekend”?
Indeed, anyone who has closely followed this at times cynically gin-soaked, now and then lusty, and occasionally maudlin madman – who can sometimes make the Cure’s Robert Smith seem jolly – had to leave both thrilled by the experience and anxious for what’s to come.