As a member of the band Brinsley Schwarz in the early 70s, Lowe was an integral part of the pub-rock movement, which took a rootsy, back-to-basics approach to rock ‘n roll.
At the same time, he established himself as the producer of pub-rockers like Dave Edmunds, with whom he would record a roots-rock album in 1980 in the band Rockpile.
In April 1977, the English punk band The Damned released their debut album, Damned Damned Damned. The timing of the album’s release, six months prior to The Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks, made producer Nick Lowe the first person to capture British punk on tape.
In July of that same year, Lowe manned the controls on the first album by an angry bespectacled young man who called himself Elvis Costello.
Lowe’s subsequent work with Costello, and with British artists like Graham Parker and the American band The Pretenders, made him one of the hottest producers of the New Wave genre.
Well-established as a musician and producer—nicknamed “Basher” for his rough-around-the-edges style—he recorded his first solo album in 1978, and revealed himself to be a master pop songsmith. In the 80s, he would reimmerse himself in roots and country. His interest in the latter probably had something to do with his having married Carlene Carter, the stepdaughter of Johnny Cash. (In 1994, four years after Lowe and Carter divorced, Cash covered Lowe’s song “The Beast In Me” on his American Recordings album.)
As evidenced by his opening spot on tour last year with Wilco, who covered his 1978 song “I Love My Label,” Lowe has clearly maintained a respectably high profile in the world of popular music.
It is this history, as much as his own songs, that make a Nick Lowe concert an extremely satisfying—if not extraordinary—experience.
As Lowe admitted early in his set, people come to hear the old stuff. However, he is not about to neglect his newer stuff, which finds him working in more of a pretty straightforward singer-songwriter mode than ever before. Lowe played about half of the tracks from 2011′s The Old Magic, including “I Read A Lot,” “Sensitive Man,” and “House For Sale,” each of which found him nailing the low-key approach that he has taken on in the mere three albums of new material he has released since 2001.
Although three albums is not a lot, it is actually Lowe’s per-decade average since becoming a solo artist. The upside of this is that it allows him to cover all the bases of his career when performing live. About halfway through the set, he was kind enough to perform his biggest U.S. hit, “Cruel To Be Kind,” which some younger folks might know only from the Letters To Cleo cover in the 1999 movie 10 Things I Hate About You.
Lowe closed with the rollicking crowd-pleaser “I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock & Roll).” He then returned to the stage for an encore that included the 1980 Rockpile song “When I Write the Book,” and a poignant version of “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.” This song was made famous by Elvis Costello, who included it on his 1979 album Armed Forces, which Lowe produced. In 1992, singer-songwriter Curtis Stigers did a version of it for the soundtrack to The Bodyguard, which has sold more that 17 million copies in the US. Thus, Lowe ended up making a boatload of dollars from a cover version that his fans and those of Whitney Houston have probably never listened to.
After leaving the stage, the crowd remained standing, cheering enthusiastically. Lowe knew he wasn’t going anywhere, so he retook the stage alone to sing “Alison,” a song that Elvis Costello wrote and originally recorded and that—you got it—Lowe produced.
I do have one complaint about both times that I have seen Lowe perform live: he seems to have forgotten his song “American Squirm,” one of the greatest pop songs that anyone ever recorded. Perhaps he is modest and doesn’t like to show off.
The handsome, clean-cut Eli “Paperboy” Reed successfully got the crowd rocking with a 40-minute opening set of Chuck Berry-inspired riffing and, I would say, Bessie Smith-like singing and shouting. Not bad for a white boy from Brookline.