Nick Lowe/Paul Cebar; October 12, 2008; Barrymore Theater
I’m not quite exactly sure why I was willing to pay $35 to see Nick Lowe. No one had to talk me into it, in fact, it was my idea. It’s not even like I’m a huge Lowe fan, I know the same two songs everyone does, but something about it made me think it would be worth it. And it was.
Turns out Lowe has written more than “Cruel to Be Kind” and “I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock & Roll),” in fact what is arguably his best known song is more commonly associated with Elvis Costello. “What’s So Funny (‘bout Peace, Love and Understanding)” made him a millionaire, and it wasn’t even the Costello version. Curtis Stigers recorded a version of that iconic song for the soundtrack to The Bodyguard, which sold 15 million copies. It was that windfall that allowed Lowe to record in recent years exactly the records that he wanted to. Reading about his relatively newfound artistic freedom, I got the distinct impression that he wouldn’t be playing any of those songs that I knew live, which I was surprisingly OK with. I was wrong.
As it turned out, he did not only “Cruel,” “Bride,” and “What’s So Funny” (which to be honest, I actually didn’t know he wrote) but also “The Beast in Me,” which Johnny Cash made his own with a heartfelt version on his pivotal American Recordings record. Admittedly, I enjoyed all those songs quite a bit (especially the “he wrote this?” moment of disbelief that went along with the latter), but I also think I would have been just fine with it if he hadn’t done them. Songs I’d never heard from his recent albums At My Age (the vindictive “I Trained Her to Love Me” could have been part of the soundtrack for In the Company of Men) and The Convincer (his wounded delivery of “Lately I’ve Let Things Slide” was especially touching) were very bit as entertaining as those that I knew every word to.
In between songs he was exactly the charmer that I expected him to be, his British accent infused every word with an air of dignity, with his gorgeous white hair providing even more evidence. Now an “elder statesman of rock” (a tag that turned up in more than one preview for this show), he maintained that impression even as he talked about hanging out with Cheap Trick in Madison back in the day. Another local celebrity that he also knew from those days was opener Paul Cebar.
“Play the shit like you have a band behind you so we can dance!” one enthusiastic woman fan yelled from just behind us. Cebar nodded like he understood what that meant and continued his set. As nonsensical as her request was, I think I kinda know what she meant. For years, Cebar and his ever-changing backing band have been entertaining crowds from Summerfest to street fests to the Harmony Bar with their distinctive, highly danceable brand of funk. Without the band behind him, it was as if our butts didn’t know what to do. I for one was OK with that. After a while the band stuff has become almost generic sounding, while I found his solo set far more entertaining than that.
In recent years Peter Mulvey has been playing a pair of songs co-written with Cebar, both of which sound distinctly like Cebar. Tonight he played a third collaboration… that sounded just like a Mulvey song. Funny how that works. Cebar’s set was just another part of a solidly entertaining night of music. I knew that would happen.