Nick Lowe’s set at the Wilbur Thursday night with instrumental backing crew Los Straitjackets was rock and roll, but Lowe is first and foremost a songwriter, and the show was more about songs than it was about rocking out. Think of this esteemed Englishman as more Buddy Holly than Jerry Lee Lewis.
Natty in open-collar white shirt, dark trousers, and shiny black dress shoes, Lowe took the stage as courtly and engaging as a host at the Grand Ole Opry, or maybe more accurately an English music hall. But songs like Brenda Lee’s “Here Comes that Feeling” brought us to the Opry, and his sweet tenor on “Raging Eyes” conjured Roy Orbison. (Nashville-based Dawn Landes helped secure the Opry connection in her impressive opening set.)
That focus on songs held true even for Los Straitjackets’ midshow 20-minute interlude, which despite a quote of Link Wray’s proto-punk “Rumble” and a showy solo from guitarist Eddie Angel, was also about melody — to the point where they even played “My Heart Will Go On,” the Celine Dion hit from “Titanic.” I’d say they played it straight-faced, but Los Straitjackets wear Mexican wrestling masks as part of their stage shtick.
Los Straitjackets restrained that shtick in backing up Lowe — supporting him beautifully with every twangy fill by Angel or tasty groove from drummer Chris Sprague and bassist Pete Curry, from the straight-up rockabilly of “Tokyo Bay” and Tejano lilt of “Half a Boy and Half a Man” to the Chuck Berry groove of “I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock and Roll)” and ballad “You Inspire Me.”
If you were looking for a songwriting masterclass, it was all there in Lowe’s trademark wit and knack for polysyllabic rhymes (“discussions with the Russians” made his “So It Goes” even more apt than usual), and the shifting styles and modulations that refreshed the ear at every turn. For homework, try scanning the lyrics, rhythm, and melody of “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding”: “As I walk/this wicked world/Searching for light in the darkness of insanity,” and the way the line quickens and falls on those last four syllables, containing the uncontainable.
Lowe performed that song at a ballad tempo, as is his wont, unlike the more desperate version that’s become a signature of his pal Elvis Costello. It was a gentle plea. The same was true of the final song of the night, one he said “everybody likes.” It was Costello’s “Alison,” here played solo on acoustic guitar, sad and tender rather than angry. Lowe caressed every phrase. A final generous gesture that said, “Don’t listen to me. Listen to the song.”
Nick Lowe and Los Straitjackets
With Dawn Landes
At the Wilbur Theatre, April 11Jon Garelick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jgarelick.