He’s in his “later years?” Well, “later” in rock land, especially punk rock, starts early, suggests 63-year-old Nick Lowe with quiet conviction, and humor—both of these qualities fully evident in the songs he now writes and performs, mostly solo with acoustic guitar. Once called “Basher,” because, apparently, of his rock & roll, pub rock, punk pop “bash-it” way of composing and producing, and considered by the mid-‘80s to be kind of over, the once famous British rocker has mellowed out in ways few former pop stars do. With his horn-rimmed, Buddy Holly specs, white hair and no-antics delivery, it’s clear that this reconstituted “Sensitive Man” emerges with muted power in his more recent songs (now “leaner” and better, he believes). Sure, audiences still want to hear the ‘70s and ‘80s classics, among them “Cruel to be Kind,” his biggest U.S. hit, “I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass,” his biggest U.K. hit and “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding,” which some still think was written by Elvis Costello. Lowe produced several Costello albums and also recorded with Johnny Cash, his former father-in-law, whose version of Lowe’s “The Beast In Me” got play in episodes of “The Sopranos.” But Lowe’s admirers, which now include more women and younger people, welcome his newer compositions (“House for Sale”) and arrangements, not to mention persona, though audiences do call for the old hits as well. And he does them, graciously. As a prelude to a Fresh Air interview on NPR last year, Terry Gross observed, “Few musicians get better with age, Nick Lowe is an exception.”
He’s delighted, of course, to be headlining at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center Saturday, part of an American tour for his label Yep Roc. Founded by Glenn Dicker and Tor Hansen (and named for a delicious 1951 be-bop recording), Yep Roc is now celebrating its 15th anniversary. The label has released four new Lowe albums in the last 11 years, but this Saturday, it’ll be one man and his guitar.
When you’re solo, “you’re much more governed by whether or not you have arthritis or not, or your voice is gone or you’re just too knackered to stand up on the stage for an hour and a half.” Ah, “knackered,” Brit-speak for what happens to horses when they’re sent to the glue factory. Lowe’s talk exudes a no-nonsense directness, a totally unsentimental take on the seductions of fame and an honest self-appraisal that could only have come from years of hard experience. He speaks of song writing today as a dying craft, similar to making a stone wall without cement or a thatched roof. He’s written that if he couldn’t bear the thought of “sitting in economy” after “a few years of having [his] ass in a wide seat,” he’d have put it all away long ago when his popularity waned. Recent album names are wonderfully appropriate—At My Age (2007) and The Old Magic (2011). The Old Magic was acclaimed as “utterly fantastic” (Village Voice) and “full of clever sweet and ironic lyrics and ballad-like country melodies” that show what Rolling Stone calls Lowe’s “cynical eye attached to a big heart.” He likes his audiences smaller now, at least as compared with the big-band stage of his heyday, but he is confident about moving on and reaching out.
He laughs when told that his life exemplifies what his fellow countryman, the poet laureate William Wordsworth, once heralded as no longer looking at the world “as in the hour/ Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes/ The still, sad music of humanity.” Lowe has been quoted as saying he knows he’ll never be a “mainstream” artist. In fact, in 2011, The New York Times wrote that his career “constitutes a paradox: the songs he has written are better known than he is,” but there’s no doubt of his extraordinary influence over the years and what has to be seen as his admirable commitment to quality, to homemade sound made with real musicians, without gimmicks and enhancements.
Nick Lowe: October 13, 8 p.m. WBPAC, 631-288-1500, $25 – $45. Jim Keller opens. www.whbpac.org.