It was fitting, though: The three musical legs of last night’s event, on this closing weekend of the free summer festival, bore little obvious resemblance to one another.
After a powerful performance by Sleepy LaBeef, followed by a trio of rockabilly artists even aficionados wouldn’t know by name, as well as a stream of uninspiring country anthems by former Drive-By Trucker Jason Isbell, Nick Lowe was as cool as the summer breeze, singing about the hard knocks of love and life with a charming style and studied delivery that dates back to music that was made before rock and roll got its name.
Isbell’s set stirred the faithful to jam the aisles of the Damrosch Bandshell, giving a pair of security guards all they could handle. It wasn’t for everyone, though. One slow-tempoed anthem followed another, several with the sort of this-is-where-I-come-from lyrics best suited to car commercials.
Isbell’s band, the 400 Unit, is adroit, sparked by his wife/violinist Amanda Shires (bottom photos). And Isbell clearly puts all his strength into his singing. The 34-year-old Alabama native also is nothing if not earnest: When he asked, “You havin’ a good time?” you could see he meant it. But the material is tedious, monotonous. If only the other songs had the early-Steve Earle flash of the hell-raising protagonist who doesn’t want to die in “Super 8 Motel” … They don’t.
Closing with the Stones’ “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” at first seemed a cool move, given that it wasn’t something Isbell had written. But that, too, dragged to an uneventful close.
Equally uneventful were a trio of geriatric rockabilly singers whose vocal and rhythmic shortcomings were only highlighted by the show’s opener, a snarling, bellowing Sleepy LaBeef.
LaBeef and his crackerjack backup band bounced through a host of rockabilly classics — some of them his, some by others, including “Mystery Train” and “That’s All Right Mama.”
It helped to have the ageless and legendary James Burton on lead guitar (above left and below), tearing off chunky riffs and tilting his head to the rhythm. But it was LaBeef who drove the countrified boogie-woogie. You wouldn’t know he turned 78 a few weeks ago as he flew through a few licks of his own, the music swirling around his massive 6-foot-6-inch frame, his still-powerful voice booming across the park.
It seems the Arkansas-born, Texas-raised Thomas Paulsley LaBeff has played every juke joint and honky-tonk there’s ever been. Yet he remains reverential, giving props to Ray Charles, Hank Williams, Fats Domino and others, even though he’s become a luminary himself. That only made it more unnerving when the emcee pulled the plug in the middle of LaBeef’s closing number, a rollicking version of “Boogie Woogie Country Man.” Seems he’d overshot his time limit, and the night’s schedule was unforgiving.
LaBeef stuck around to play backup with two of the other rockabilly singers, but he clearly wasn’t enjoying himself any longer. It wasn’t until he worked his way through the adoring audience that the massive man in black regained his twinkle.
Lowe later joked about it, saying he’d been promised he wouldn’t be cut short. Then again, he’s never been one to go on.
With only a bare stage, a single guitar, his microphone and monitors, Nick the Knife held much of the throng rapt through 20 snugly-wrapped songs, many of them familiar to long-time fans.
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. In recent years, as it was last night, the rockers stood out simply because of their rarity. The hard stuff doesn’t suit the rail-thin, silver-quiffed Lowe anymore, and that’s fine: At 64, he’s all about controlled precision, the kind that produced some of this country’s truly classic country music.
Some of those hearing Lowe’s sardonic “I Trained Her to Love Me” for the first time might have been shocked, although, in a Richard Thompson-like twist, the character who really ends up with the broken heart isn’t the one you’d expect. Speaking of which, Lowe’s version of “Heart” was charming as ever, clocking in – like most of the set’s tunes – at under three minutes. Pure pop for A.D.D. people.
“Raging Eyes” bounced more than it swung. The crowd also erupted at the opening notes of “Cruel to Be Kind” (which Lowe co-wrote with fellow Brit pub-rocker Ian Gomm), as the hooks — and jabs — kept on coming.
Lowe said he hasn’t toured much recently because he was working on a new CD – a Christmas album, actually. Given the time of year, “I thought I’d keep it under my hat,” he said. But Lowe’s label, the terrific Yep-Roc Records, streamed the album, “Quality Street: A Seasonal Selection for All the Family,” late last month, playing off a “Christmas in July” theme.
Lowe debuted “A Dollar Short of Happiness,” a laugh-out-loud (literally) lament he co-wrote with Ry Cooder for the record, the type of tune that could make Thompson himself blush for its depth of cleverness.
Although he may no longer be Jesus of Cool, Lowe’s winking balladeer persona suits him as well as his black, retro-Costello spectacles. There was talk some time ago that his distinctly familiar baritone had lost its depth, but he sounded strong, especially on the more tender numbers — the achingly mournful “It’s Raining,” the bittersweet “Stoplight Roses,” and the confident-but-not-cocky “Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day,” among them.
“Without Love” had its familiar jauntiness and Rockpile’s “When I Write the Book,” the first of a brief two-song encore, bore its usual snap.
“I Knew the Bride” was the only genuine misstep, opening in the wrong key and an awkward tempo, then stumbling toward the end. Lowe also false-started the night’s closer, “(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding,” saying it might be “too gloomy.” But the crowd urged him on and it was the usual perfect nightcap, featuring an arrangement that Lowe and Elvis Costello worked out on a 1996 solo tour.
The only catch with Nick Lowe — something that he himself acknowledged — is that he can’t possibly do all of the songs that each and every audience member has come to love over more than four prolific decades, beginning with the pub-rock band Brinsley Schwarz, followed by the two-headed juggernaut that he and Dave Edmunds created in Rockpile and continuing with his suave solo work.
Lowe’s creative output is surpassed only by Thompson, Costello, and, to a degree, his other former mate, Graham Parker (There was no “…Breaking Glass,” “Marie Provost,” or “The Beast in Me”).
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