Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Jesus of Uncool

Nick Lowe and Ron Sexsmith - London Royal Albert Hall, 18th May 2009

Can there be a less fashionable musician currently at work than Nick Lowe? Clad in well pressed black trousers and a shirt white enough to match his hair, he hardly looks like he could be the same man who was once signed to Stiff records and who produced ‘New Rose’ for The Damned. In calling his most recent album ‘At My Age’, it’s clear that Lowe himself relishes the irony. Fashionable or not, this show offered an illuminating education in how to mature as a singer-songwriter.

Ron Sexsmith, who provided a brief but straightforwardly enjoyable opening set, might be younger, but his songs share a directness and clarity with those of Nick Lowe. The two performers complemented each other neatly and it was a shame that Sexsmith wasn’t allowed a little longer than his cursory 20 minutes. He managed to squeeze in a handful of songs from across his career, including two songs perhaps better associated with Leslie Feist (‘Brandy Alexander’ and ‘Secret Heart’). Sexsmith is not the most elaborate or diverse of writers, favouring conventional chord sequences, lyrical platitudes and hummable melodies. His songs have a calm, reflective charm though and his soft, understated voice is appealing.

It’s easy to see why Lowe’s current career retrospective is called ‘Quiet Please’. I had forgotten to bring my earplugs to the concert but I was hardly troubled by the band’s delicate dynamic. If anything, they soothed rather than exacerbated my persistent tinnitus. Such restraint enabled the band to master the Royal Albert Hall’s infamously difficult acoustic – all the parts were clearly audible, with Lowe’s voice achieving clarity in spite of his unfussy, near-spoken delivery, with its emphasis more on phrasing than power.

The set traverses Lowe’s changeable career, but favours his most recent albums, on which he has re-established himself as a wistful, occasionally whimsical writer of new country-soul standards – a hybrid of George Jones, Tony Joe White and Dan Penn. There’s not much trace of his earlier incarnations as a writer of pub-rock or affectionate parodies (the Bowie-inspired angular funk of ‘I Love The Sound of Breaking Glass’ would have sounded very odd in the middle of this set). Lowe has never been a true original or a radical, but he seems to have reached his full potential late into his career, discovering a mould into which he fits with remarkable ease.

He simply writes great songs and whether delivering them solo or accompanied by the stately and unfussy playing of his band, everything sounds effortless and unhurried. Lowe imbues his songs with subtlety and dignity. Even the casual misogyny in ‘I Trained Her To Love Me’ sounds deceptively soft (he promises that the show will be ‘entertainment for all the family’ from that point on). His songs show a rare insight and awareness into everyday home life so often absent in contemporary pop. ‘Lately I’ve Let Things Slide’ will be, for many, an all-too recognisable account of how depression sets in almost unnoticed. ‘Let’s Stay In and Make Love’ is a rather delightful tribute to the virtues of isolated intimacy over the social whirl.

The audience evidently appreciates the airing of ‘Cruel To Be Kind’, although even this is played with a lightness of touch rather than a vigorous stomp. ‘What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and Understanding’ closes the main set as a soulful ballad – a far cry from Costello’s more urgent version. Yet even with their delicacy and taste, the group can still invite toe-tapping, particularly in their rockabilly shuffles, or in the insistent backbeat of ‘When I Write the Book’.

I could have done with a bit less of special guest saxophonist Curtis Stigers, whose smooth interjections almost took some of the material into soft porn soundtrack territory. Perhaps keyboardist Geraint Watkins could have been allowed a little more space too – his occasional solos were expressive, confident flourishes. The encore begins with Lowe singing a solo take on ‘The Beast In Me’ but develops into a showpiece for the talents of his ensemble. It was a pleasant surprise to hear Watkins sound like Van Morrison when Lowe allowed him to sing one of his own songs and Ron Sexsmith joined in for a rambling take on an old Louvin Brothers song.

Lowe is an amiable on-stage presence, a storyteller and wry humourist as much as a singer. His explanation for the length of time between full UK tours (about 20 years apparently) raised a few smiles – he had been forbidden from playing in the provinces ‘due to lack of interest’. It’s a shame too that the promoters seemed to have over-stretched themselves a bit by going for the Albert Hall as London venue – the entire top circle was empty and there were many spare seats in the stalls too. Given how charming and engaging a performer Lowe clearly is, let’s hope his upcoming return to the London stage with Ry Cooder (a mouth-watering collaborative prospect) is better attended.

1 comment:

Tim Difford... said...

Comprehensive and thoughtful review. Thanks. Just got back from their Holmfirth show. Packed and rousing. Ron got more time... And his own encore. Nick went beyond his setlist as the crowd wouldn't let him leave.