I’ve been to a few gigs recently by artists who started plying their trade in that 70’s tide of punk/new wave/alternative. There was Kid Congo Powers a couple of months ago, then Tom Robinson the other week, and Elvis Costello last month.
At the Costello gig, as he sang “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” I was reminded of the song writing smarts of Nick Lowe who wrote the song while he was a member of the band Brinsley Schwarz, many moons ago. I was reminded of the how-to-make-it-look-easy-ness of his quick and wise words, of the length and breadth of the lines he lays down.
He’s associated with power pop, new wave, with pub rock. As a producer he’s worked with the likes of Elvis Costello, Dr Feelgood and Carlene Carter (to whom he was married). As a writer he’s responsible for songs we all know, that in their day were hard to avoid, like “(I Love the Sound of) Breaking Glass” and “Cruel To Be Kind”.
A month or so after Mr. Costello came to town, Nick Lowe payed a visit to Belfast, playing Willowfield Church as part of the Eastside Arts Festival, and his first song ‘People Change’ was a case in point. There was the off-centre catching melody, the right-on-the-button lyrics, the feeling that it was just a simple song. I’d not heard it before but I was captured. One white haired speccy geezer and his guitar, singing in a church. There’s potential for that concept to go horribly wrong. Fair dues to Eastside Arts for bringing over the best white haired speccy geezer for the job.
Halfway through ‘People Change’ Lowe started talking, strumming. “You’re welcome” he told us in a comfortable, easy voice. “Now let’s see what we can do to ease your troubled mind.” We settled even more on our very comfortable pews, the back light shifting to red, the beam of the odd passing car bouncing off the occasional stain glass, the silhouette of a flag appearing briefly with the car lights.
Before that though, the night was opened by local singer song writing institution Ken Haddock. Last time I’d seen him he was ‘In The Round’ with his hero Bruce Cockburn. Tonight he had the stage all to himself to spin his tales of love, and life, and how they don’t always rest easy together. ‘The Day That Never Came’ painted an aching unrequited love for example, laid down with guitar and warm mature voice. And though the set was made up of his self-writ catalogue he did manage a cover or two towards the end, including a certain Mr. Cockburn’s ‘Southland of the Heart’. It was a mellow starter for the evening ahead, a fine taste of local fare.
“Belfast is the city of youthful indiscretions” Nick Lowe smiled, as he talked us through what he had in store. “Basically it’s a pop show ladies and gentlemen.” Explaining that his songs aren’t very long, but if he talked about each one we’d be here all night, so he’s just going to sing them – and he did: the vague reggae of ‘Long Limbed Girl’ ran straight into ‘Raging eyes’ led on to the solo country licks of ‘Has She Got A Friend?’ and so it went on.
Eventually he paused for what looked like a mug of tea. “We’re halfway through” he pointed out between sips, and proceeded to tell us a story about our own late great Henry McCullough, the guitarist, singer and songwriter in his own right, who also played in bands such as Paul McCartney and Wings, and The Grease Band (originally Joe Cocker’s backing band). He told us how he met McCullough in 1969, how he was a musical hero, how he thinks it extraordinary that this fount of musical knowledge “would let me be his friend … I was a dimwit back then.” McCullough had given Lowe a tape with a couple of his songs on it, one of which Lowe ultimately recorded and played for us at Willowfield this night, so many years later. “Some people may question the wisdom of doing this in a church, but there’s a very particular meaning just under the surface of this song” he told us, and to great applause, he went on to play ‘Failed Christian’.
“I’m going to meet my maker
A firm believer
Of spirit in music
There’s a prayer in a song”
“Thanks Henry” Lowe shook his raised fist, grinning upwards to Mr McCullough, as the audience showed their appreciation when the song was over
Then there was ‘Cruel To Be Kind’ and ‘Sensitive Man’ and ‘Somebody Cares for Me’ which he sang because he was “in the groove already.” Some mighty free whooping kicked in on occasion, from individuals who were happy to hear the opening bars of one or another song. However, there was something unusual about the extra hush that hit the assembled as he sang ‘House For Sale’. The audience had been attentive and quiet all night, soaking up the quality coming from the front of the church. With this song however there was an added sentiment, an extra mood for those three minutes. He had us in the palm of his hand.
The very last song of the night brought us back to Elvis Costello, as Nick Lowe rendered a warm, clear and vaguely crooned version of “Alison.” As he sang the line “This world is killing you” he held a long high note, and on the affirmation that his aim is true, Mr. Lowe left the stage.
First posted by CultureHUB Magazine