At the age of 68, Nick Lowe is no longer the sly rapscallion who emerged as one of the most tuneful rocking popsters of the punk and New Wave movement in the 1970s and ’80s.
The white-haired Lowe has reinvented himself as a sadder, wiser singer-songwriter with plenty of wistful stories to tell from the vantage point of someone who has seen everything and readily admits it wasn’t all good.
But his new tales, if more subtle, have lost none of the catchy flavor and off-center wit of the old ones.
During a solo acoustic performance Oct. 14 at the Outpost in the Burbs concert series at the First Congregational Church in Montclair, Lowe played a smattering of his old favorites but mostly concentrated on the reflective tunes that have been his main focus since the mid-‘90s.
Despite the downbeat nature of many of the songs, Lowe was a cheery presence on the stage with his upbeat banter and lively playing. His good English manners and tendency for self-deprecation have grown stronger than ever.
“It was very nice of you to give up your lovely autumn evening to come and see me,” he told the audience.
Later, he dismissed his own hard-strumming rhythm guitar style as “rudimentary” and praised the elegant, high-ceilinged, 800-capacity church sanctuary, remarking on how there are a far greater number of agreeable concert venues in the United States than in his native England.
In London, he said, it’s a choice between large venues such as Wembley Stadium and the Royal Albert Hall and “the room above the Dog and Duck … There’s no middle ground.”
Lowe, the onetime co-leader of the sizzling power-pop/rockabilly band Rockpile, generally kept his rocking side hidden during the early part of the show.
With his voice sounding clear and sonorous (if a tad scratchy) and his guitar adding appropriate flourishes, the newer songs showed Lowe had added a tender, cautionary side to his tendency to find odd slices of life. Many songs focused on failed, lost romance.
In the dreamy ballad “Stoplight Roses,” Lowe employed an effective, unusual symbol to illustrate someone trying something that’s too little and too late: “Experience should tell you/Never get your story too straight … ‘Cause you’ve broken something this time/Stoplight roses can’t mend.”
Other high points among the sad ballads were the pretty “Shelley My Love,” which Lowe said he wrote in the ‘90s when he thought he might have a shot at a new career writing songs for others; and the especially poignant “House for Sale,” which offers, “Take a look inside/This is where love once did reside.”
Lowe extended his regrets to several more typically snappy, seemingly cheerful pop songs. In “Sensitive Man,” he sang, “If I have done something to upset you, that wasn’t part of my plan/But how can I fix it standing out here in the cold?/I’m a sensitive man.”
Lowe pleased the crowd when he occasionally added old favorites during the more than 90-minute set, including the twangy, rollicking “Ragin’ Eyes” and “Without Love,” and his memorable pop hit, “Cruel to be Kind.”
Toward the end, he cranked up his playing and singing, bringing the rocker of yore back to the stage. An engaging version of Arthur Alexander’s “Lonely Just Like Me” was compelling and he got the audience to participate in the Rockpile tune, “When I Write Book.”
Probably the highest point of the show was “I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock ’n’ Roll),” which he wrote for a solo album by his onetime Rockpile bandmate, Dave Edmunds.
Lowe improved on the old tune, fully rocking out with a fresh guitar riff as he extended the song and stomped happily on the stage, much to the delight of the crowd that clearly identified with the sentiments.
For an encore, Lowe played his classic “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” carefully enunciating the lyrics in a slow, mournful version that painfully demonstrated how utterly relevant this once-funny song is in today’s political climate: “As I walk through this wicked world/Searching for light in the darkness of insanity/I ask myself is all hope lost?/Is there only pain and hatred and misery?”
That song was initially popularized by Lowe’s pal, Elvis Costello, and Lowe returned the favor by finishing the evening with Costello’s famous ballad, “Alison.”
The opening act, Max Clarke, who uses the stage name Cut Worms, offered a solo acoustic set of his distinctive, affecting, moody original songs. Clarke’s tenor hit the mark consistently but his jaunty country-blues guitar style sometimes proved overly ambitious for his skill level.
Here is Lowe’s setlist and, below it, three videos from the evening:
“Long Limbed Girl”
“Blue on Blue”
“Has She Got a Friend?”
” ‘Til the Real Thing Comes Along”
“Hope for Us All”
“I Trained Her to Love Me”
“I Live on a Battlefield”
“Shelley My Love”
“Cruel to be Kind”
“When I Write the Book”
“House for Sale”
“Lonely Just Like Me”
“I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock ‘n’ Roll)”
“(What’s so Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding”