There’s something subdued about a Downtown Wednesday night in early January. It isn’t just the weather. It’s more the holiday hangover. As if all the revelers are up for a quiet night. The parties and rock and roll lifestyle that dominates from Christmas through New Year has run its course. That really is the proper frame for Nick Lowe at The Dakota.
I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting walking into the first of two sold out nights. Sure, I know Nick Lowe. So do you. Unless you’ve lived under a rock with earplugs for the last forty years. I’d never seen him solo with just an acoustic guitar. I’d caught him in the super-group Little Village and I’d seen film of Rockpile. But there’s always a question of how the “behind the scenes” writer will fare sans band.
Not to worry. This Dakota stop is kind of a yearly ritual. The fact that he filled both nights and it was a pricey club ticket simply points to the fact Lowe makes it work. Great songs are great songs. They don’t need much in the way of padding.
As the night progressed, I was struck by how literally perfect his songs are. He is one of the finest song-smiths that has ever graced the popular music scene. There wasn’t a single song presented that wasn’t a marvel of three chord simplicity and poignant lyrics. Nothing fancy. But to use a Minnesota euphemism, those songs have more hooks than your granddad’s tackle box.
Lowe opened with a three song group, People Change, Stoplight Roses and Love Starvation. He then engaged the audience, chiding us for coming out on a dismal night rather than sitting in front of a fire with a good bottle of wine. He promised that everyone would hear at least two songs they knew. However, he pointed out that there was a bit for everybody and that he’d sneak in a couple new ones. He promised he wouldn’t tell us when the new one was coming up. After all, didn’t we all shell out our hard earned money to hear the hits? Didn’t we all inwardly groan whenever an artist asks: “Would you like to hear a new one?”
Nor did we come to hear him talk, he said. So he intended to shut his mouth and play for a bit. If he didn’t chat with us, it wasn’t because he was disengaged or having a bad time. It was so we could all just get on with it. So if you’re no fan of dead air, you were a fan ten songs later when he once again decided to chat.
Coming into the next seven song segment it occurred to me that the Nick Lowe formula is about heartache. Literally every tune he crooned explored that special love gone wrong. Whether it was about the singer finally getting his comeuppance for neglecting his girl, the wasteland of a last stage romance or about the one that ripped your heart out for kicks, it’s the same arrow aimed at your heart. If anybody was ever on the losing end of a broken heart, the songs speak to you.
Rarely, however, did things wallow in self pity. There’s kind of this indomitable spirit of survival. No silver lining. But a sense that we will survive because we know how. These are not out of the blue bolts of tragedy that strike us down. They are the inexorable culmination of all our human failings and faults. We know how to cope.
The songs I Read A Lot and House For Sale were the only two times he really took us down into the depths. He called them sentimental songs. I called them downright depressing. Beautiful, for sure. But they sat upon you like a two ton truck. Only the song Tokyo Bay seemed to escape the theme.
And before you jump into the fray and admonish that there’s nothing sad about his classic I Knew The Bride (When She Used To Rock n Roll), go back and listen. Or just wait until the next wedding reception (ok wedding reception for something other than a couple twenty somethings). You may drink, dance, sing and revel along with it. But the song is from the perspective of a man seeing the woman who tripped his trigger capitulating to another mate and a settled lifestyle. And that’s rather…sad!
The encore consisted of Rockpile’s I Write The Book which got the first audience participation of the evening. As expected, the show closed with (What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding. Not the Elvis Costello version; just that simple, straightforward question. Spare, intelligent and beautiful. It was a bit like that single chime of expensive crystal. Twenty two songs. Perfectly constructed. Wrapped at 8:57pm.
Walking back to my car I pondered a pair of subjects. The first was that original question. Who was I going to see that night? A songwriter, simply delivering his stories. No accouterments needed. He was like John Hiatt and he was like Elvis Costello. That should come as no surprise. They’ve worked together extensively and each points to Lowe as a guiding star.
The second thought was how the show was everything that makes The Dakota so great and at the same time presents its biggest challenge. When you walk into that place and are surrounded by fine dining you wonder if the performer is going to be able to turn it up and let rip the way they would in a place like The Turf Club. It’s not a venue that has people on their feet dancing the night away. There is always a decorum. By the same token, every act that graces that stage is truly world class. It’s a place to listen.
There is a music fan base out there that appreciates great music by sitting respectfully and actively listening. They are a different crowd than those who love the visceral experience of an exuberant rock or hip hop show. There’s plenty of the latter kind of venue around town. The Dakota fills that former type of spot and it’s such a unique and wonderful resource to the community. We need them both.
Just fight that little voice in your head that says you’re too old to be out supporting live music. That the nights are too late and you have to work tomorrow. Just because you can have dinner, catch somebody like Nick Lowe at The Dakota and be homeward bound by 9pm, don’t throw in the towel. Otherwise, that song about what the bride used to be while she still rocked and rolled may very well be about you!