More than holiday knock-offs, Nick Lowe’s Christmas songs were his strongest batch of originals in awhile.
By Brett Milano
Nick Lowe’s Christmas tour got off to a decidedly non-festive start two weeks ago, when guest star Ian McLagan—the much-admired Small Faces and Faces keyboardist— died of a sudden stroke on the eve of rehearsals. (Those who missed McLagan’s show at Johnny D’s in October are now permanently out of luck). Lowe paid a tribute early in his show on Tuesday at Boston’s Paradise Rock Club, noting that McLagan was “a quintessential Mod, what we used to call a groover,” and that he would have advised his mates to get on with it. And so they did, to fine effect.
The tour is theoretically built around Quality Street, a collection of hip and non-sentimental Christmas songs that Lowe released last winter. But though he included six of those songs (half the album) in his set, it wasn’t strictly a night of Christmas music. The real news is that his Yep Rock labelmates, Nashville’s mysterious masked surfers Los Straitjackets, are also on the tour, and it’s the first time in two decades that Lowe has toured with a full-fledged rock band. Once known as pop’s premier smart-aleck (and the co-leader of Rockpile with estranged friend Dave Edmunds), Lowe has since reinvented himself in the past 20 years: Beginning on the 1994 album The Impossible Bird, Lowe has embraced maturity with a nuanced, impeccably crafted blend of soul, country, and vintage pop. Most of his latter-day tours have been solo acoustic, and when he’s used a band it’s been the tasteful, brushed-drums-and-accordion kind.
But with Los Straitjackets in tow, he went back to rock’n’roll this week. Not all the way, mind you—This band doesn’t have Rockpile’s manic energy, or its rumored cocaine intake—but close enough to do right by his greatest hits. It’s odd to realize that “Half A Boy & Half a Man,” “I Knew the Bride” and “Cruel to Be Kind” never set the charts on fire, considering the number of people who love them now. When they did the timeless “What’s So Funny About Peace, Love & Understanding,” it was closer to the original version—which Lowe cut with the country-rock band Brinsley Schwarz in 1974—than to Elvis Costello’s rave-up cover.
More than holiday knock-offs, Lowe’s Christmas songs were his strongest batch of originals in awhile. “A Dollar Short of Happy” (a sad one about being homeless on the holiday) and “Christmas at the Airport” (a funny one about getting stranded in transit) both looked at the season from unconventional angles. And on the night’s final tune, “I Was Born in Bethlehem,” he got reverent and made if work—even if the line “My mother meek and mild/ And herself only a child” sounded like he was singing “…and her cell phone.”
Los Straitjackets, who last hit town with the Fleshtones at the Sinclair in November, performed a handful of souped-up seasonal tunes, including a surf-ska arrangement of “Linus & Lucy” (ie, the tune everybody recognizes from A Charlie Brown Christmas). During the encore they did the Small Faces’ psychedelic hit “Itchycoo Park,” which they surely would have done if McLagan was there. But when the crowd joined in on the chorus of “It’s all too beautiful,” it seemed that the old groover had stopped in to give blessings.
Brett Milano has been covering music in Boston for decades, and is the author of Vinyl Junkies: Adventures in Record Collecting (St. Martins, 2001) and The Sound of Our Town: A History of Boston Rock & Roll (Commonwealth Editions, 2007). He recently returned from New Orleans where he was editor of the music and culture magazine OffBeat.