IN TUNE: “We’re certainly not traveling in the lap of luxury,” Nick Lowe told the first of three sold-out audiences at City Winery on Tuesday. “Maybe the knee of luxury. Certainly the foot.” The past several years, Lowe solo’d whenever he came to town. This time he brought the band — including legendary barrelhouse keyboardist Geraint Watkins — “so that you can have a look at them.”
“It hasn’t been easy,” said Lowe, 61. “The expense — holy, moly. To send a rock-and-roll group, especially an aging rock-and-roll group, to the United States for two or three weeks — the cost is eye-watering.”
So were a few of Lowe’s sardonic ballads, including “I Trained Her to Love Me,” in which the character who ends up with the broken heart isn’t the one you’d expect.
“It’s possible to do it hard ass,” Lowe said of touring. “You just stuff everyone into a car and go. But that’s a young man’s game and simply would not suit me anymore.”
Time was, the King of Pub Rock — one of rock and roll’s most prolific songwriters AND producers — occasionally slowed the tempo for a ballad or two.
But on Tuesday night at City Winery, the rockers stood out simply because of their rarity. The hard stuff doesn’t suit him anymore, and that’s fine.
Doesn’t mean he won’t pull one out now and then.
The first of these was “Raging Eyes,” which swung as mightily as the recorded original.
The crowd also erupted at the opening notes of “Cruel to Be Kind” (co-written with Ian “Slip, Slip Away” Gomm) and again at the end.
“Ah, I get it,” Lowe cracked. “You’re here for the pop tunes. What about ‘Indian Queens’?”
As a matter of fact, it was pitch-perfect, an irony-laden elegy of longing for a place in County Cork (where Lowe used to keep a retreat) that sounds like one of those public domain country-and-Western ballads sung riding the rails centuries ago.
Also captivating was the smoky lounge groove of “You Inspire Me,” augmented by Watkins (below), who treated the crowd to a brisk opening set that concluded with a version of “Johnny B. Goode” that he began by reciting as a poem.
Watkins then kicked into the boogie-woogie that has made him so popular in England.
The headliner’s version of “Heart,” of course, was charming as ever. Pure pop for now people.
Although he may no longer be Jesus of Cool, Lowe’s balladeer persona suits him. There was talk that his distinctly familiar baritone had lost its depth during his last go-round, but he sounded strong and confident, particularly on the tender numbers, such as “What Lack of Love Has Done.”
He smiled broadly when several people up front sang along to the jaunty skiffle of “Without Love,” the familiar snap of “When I Write the Book” and the sly Folsom Prison bluesy-ness of “Has She Got a Friend?”
A new ballad, “Home For Sale,” boasted Lowe’s trademarked wordplay. But it blended too unremarkably into the other mood pieces — unlike the double show-closer, “I Knew the Bride,” which finally got the crowd clapping and singing along, and “(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding,” featuring an arrangement Lowe and Elvis Costello worked out on a solo tour in 1996.
No surprise that Nick the Knife was engaging as ever.
His material was equal parts country, jazz, and R&B, with a bit of occasional swing.
And the gracious — and graceful — front man obliged each and every cellphone photographer, holding poses as he sang whenever he noticed someone trying to grab a snap.
For the encore, Lowe kept most of his bandmates in the wings while he and his longtime friend performed an aching duet that Watkins wrote, “Only a Rose.” (“She was my pride and joy. She was my everything. Only a rose for my darling.”)
They emerged soon after for the fluffy “When I Write the Book” — a lovely thought, really.
A man who has written so many gems must have some great tales to tell.
And that’s the only catch with Nick Lowe. He can’t possibly do ALL of the songs each and every audience member has come to love over the years (No “…Breaking Glass,” “Marie Provost,” or “The Beast in Me”).
Yet, having re-invented himself as a musicologist, he can still send them home warm and happy.