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Ken Maiuri’s Clubland: Nick Lowe gets heartfelt standing O at ‘Wooden Horse’

Nick Lowe

PHOTO BY DAN BURN-FORTI Nick Lowe Purchase photo reprints »

Nick Lowe knows how to draw you in. When he played the cavernous Calvin in May ’08, just a man and his acoustic guitar alone on a big stage, he effortlessly shrank the impersonal hall into a friendly, down-to-earth gig.

The famed singer/songwriter/producer returned to Northampton Tuesday night to play a standing-room-only show at the Iron Horse, an already intimate place — yet Lowe once again magically shrank the room, sometimes singing so softly and smoothly he barely enunciated words. The crowded venue was reverentially silent, hanging on every syllable.

The pindrop-quiet room was perfect for hearing Lowe’s beautiful voice, more supple and playful than ever. (“Silver honey” was one friend’s description.) His sound man added a touch of reverb to his microphone, calling to mind the Sun Records heyday of the e_SSRq50s — Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash — and Lowe cast many of the night’s songs in a rockabilly mold (although usually minus the rock), throwing in Elvis hiccups and Cash-like low notes.

He played a 20-song set (with four more during the encores), all direct and unadorned. The closest thing to a solo was Lowe’s heavily strummed E chord during the break in his newer tune “Tokyo Bay,” his hand raking across the strings as the audience whooped.

The total focus was on his voice, the tunes, the lyrics, one short song after another. “If you don’t like one of them, just look at your fingernails,” Lowe told the amused crowd. “Another one will be along before too long.”

It was one of the few times he stopped the generous flow of songs to speak to the audience. Early on, he thanked those in attendance (at the “Wooden Horse”) for being there and “enabling people like to me to scratch along for a little bit longer.”

He apologized in advance to the super-fans who sometimes drive “insane distances” to attend, just in case he didn’t play their particular favorites, but it was hard to imagine anyone leaving less-than-ecstatic: included in the slew of songs drawn from 40 years of his songwriting career was his 1979 pop classic “Cruel To Be Kind,” the rollicking “I Knew the Bride (When She Used To Rock ‘n’ Roll),” should’ve-been-bigger hits like “Heart” and “Raging Eyes,” his ’74 song “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” that was made huge by Elvis Costello’s version — and he even ended the show by playing Costello’s “Alison.” I’ve never seen such an immediate standing ovation as when Lowe finished that final chord. A few folks literally leapt to their feet.

After playing the country-ish tune “I Live On a Battlefield,” he told how Diana Ross was once forced by her then-producer to cover that song; despite the adding of choruses and an orchestra and spending “the budget of a small European country,” it was not a hit. “But what the heck, it bought me a new bathroom,” Lowe concluded with a happy shrug.

The Diana Ross version from 1991 actually sounds like an updated Supremes song — not what one would expect by hearing Lowe’s stripped-down version at the Iron Horse. It showed how timeless — and pliable — his songwriting is.

A highlight of the show was “Raining Raining,” a hushed and emotional ballad about the dark inside despite the sunny outside. Yet even as he gently picked out the notes and softly crooned lyrics like “Lovers strolling around without one foot on the ground / but in here it’s bound to be raining,” one could imagine the song recast as an upbeat girl-group hit of the e_SSRq60s.

Lowe has a Christmas album coming out on October 29 (“Quality Street”), but admitted it was a little odd to perform a seasonal tune while it was 80 degrees outside, so he sang the “least-Christmas-y” tune on the record, “A Dollar Short of Happy.” It cleverly reused famous Christmas song lyrics within a more modern, down-on-its-luck story that still made room for witty details, like the city sidewalks looking more lonely “than any Russian playwright would allow,” or how because of the singer’s family’s changing fortunes, there’d be “no more crazy nannies getting high in the SUV.”

During the encore he reminisced about his first real time through the Northeast in the late-e_SSRq70s, when his old band Rockpile was opening for Van Morrison — until Van the Man let them go, leaving Lowe and company to roam around New England’s bars, asking if they could play an impromptu show.

Lowe then sang Rockpile’s 1980 song “When I Write the Book.” I was in the cluster of standing folks up by the front door, a great vantage point for seeing both Lowe and the faces of the crowd. People were genuinely aglow. Longtime fans throughout the room shyly and sweetly sang the backing vocal part when it came time (“When I write the book about my love”) and Lowe smiled at the harmony. A beautiful moment in a fine show.

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