Nick Lowe sure saved the best for last. Standing front and centre on a darkened stage the veteran singer-songwriter sang Elvis Costello’s heart-wrenching ballad Alison armed with only his trusty acoustic guitar. The tune, produced by Lowe, was made famous on Costello’s debut My Aim is True, on Stiff Records. Lowe also handled the next four albums for Costello, cementing their reputation as one of rock’s finest double acts. In a quiet act of beauty, Lowe stripped the song down to its bare bones, allowing Alison’s party dress to slowly hit the floor as he wrung every twist and turn from the tune. And then he modestly waved to the crowd and walked off.
These days, Lowe may have traded his cocky punk sneer to become one of rock’s elder statesmen, but that doesn’t mean he’s lost his cutting edge. With his silver quiff shining like a beacon from the stage, he set about his BluesFest appearance at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire with a languid, simmering intensity permeating every tune he tackled. That’s the attraction of Nick Lowe; his songs have punch, verve, meaning and damn good hooks, and are all wrapped up in about three minutes. Just take (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding, one of the finest songs ever sung by Costello, brimming with a punk-like cynicism without the racket, and again it’s written by Lowe. He pulled it out of his bag of tricks during his first encore and, like Alison, played it at a fiercely slow pace, allowing the chorus of “So where are the strong?/ And who are the trusted?/ And where is the harmony? / Sweet harmony” to shine with a poignant beauty.
The 64-year-old Londoner peppered his show with these favourites, while also including tunes from last year’s album The Old Magic. And the way Lowe conjures up the harmonies is surely as magical as you’re likely to hear. He has an ability to turn often fairly ordinary songs into something quite extraordinary with a subtle tweak of a phrase or a trademark rhyming couplet.
The fairly banal topic of the weather on Raining Raining is transformed by Lowe into a little gem with modest fanfare: “Heard the weatherman say/ Put the umbrellas away.” Elsewhere he heads into darker territory to deliver this killer line: “Trained her to love me so I could go ahead and break her heart” before admitting at the end of the tune: “That’s a bad song!” with devilish delight.
The way the Bard of Brentford refuses to overcook his vocal delivery as he pulls away from the mic at key moments is like a boxer choosing to bury yet another jab in his opponent’s chin rather than go for the merciful knockout blow. The songs don’t explode; they swelter and fester and pester your brain until you relent to their natural charms. And the control and precision of his singing and songwriting ends up making each verse and lick as fresh as the last.
Balance, patience and craft are important to Lowe and his set is inflected with a much more country feel than it is the blues. If you close your eyes it can sound remarkably like a Richard Hawley gig (minus the surly Sheffield accent) with its vintage rock feel and fairly standard rock backbeat courtesy of a backing band consisting of drums/double bass/keyboard/electric guitar. But from his early work with The Damned to a catalogue of songs covered by the likes of Diana Ross, it is Lowe’s effortless power as a troubadour that succeeds in winning hearts and minds. Long may he continue.