Nick Lowe is one of the great minor figures in rock ’n’ roll.
Well, his work is better known than his name. He produced several early Elvis Costello albums, Graham Parker’s first two records, a hit for the Pretenders and a popular album for John Hiatt, among others. You might have heard his songs, including “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” (made famous by Elvis Costello), “I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock ’n’ Roll)” (made famous by Dave Edmunds) and “The Beast in Me” (made famous by Johnny Cash). Or you might have heard the one hit Lowe sang himself, 1979’s “Cruel to Be Kind.”
Lowe, 69, is well known enough to draw sold-out crowds for two evenings this week at the Dakota in Minneapolis. The fans at Wednesday’s opening night witnessed a masterful tunesmith, a music maker who embraces hummable melodies, intelligent lyrics and emotional if understated singing.
While the veteran Brit may have made his name in the 1970s and ’80s, his songs have a timeless quality about them. Writing in an intersection of New York’s Tin Pan Alley, Nashville’s Music Row and London’s Pub Rock Road, he is obsessed with failed romance, heartache and longing, though he never sounds bitter. He may despair but never to the point of desperation.
His earlier material is more clever, preoccupied with rhymes and rhythm. However, since the mid-’90s, he has been creating some praiseworthy pre-Beatles pop, wise and wistful ballads that could easily fit in a set of standards.
Most impressive — and enthusiastically received — were a pair of 2011 numbers — the jazzy, mellow ballad “I Read a Lot” and the slow and soft “House for Sale.” The latter had the crucial couplet “take a look inside/ This is where love once did reside” crooned with a knowing melancholy, a comforting resignation and an encouraging and familiar coda: “Because with time, care, cash/ Peace, love and understanding/ It can be as good as new/ House for sale, house for sale.”
With Lowe, the tunes came fast but not furious. As he pointed out, his songs are short. And he exercised his self-deprecating wit in conversation early and late in the 23-song, 90-minute set. “All my new stuff sounds exactly like my old stuff,” he joked. “So I’m not going to tell you it’s a new song.”
Whether the material was new or old, Lowe sang with a gentle croon, backed only by his acoustic guitar. With his shock of white hair and big-enough-for-Elvis-Costello glasses, he looked the part of the grown-up rocker but couldn’t seem to muster a loud enough — or high enough — voice on the riff rocker “Cruel to Be Kind” or the Chuck Berry-evoking “I Knew the Bride.”
Lowe’s vocal approach suggested an acoustic folk-soul Sam Cooke. He showed his interpretive prowess, bringing a lonely soulfulness to the 1982 Dionne Warwick hit “Heartbreaker” (which was written by the Bee Gees) and Arthur Alexander’s 1993 sad soul nugget “Lonely Just Like Me.”
Lowe underscored his interpretive instincts on the night’s final two fairly famous selections, his own “Peace, Love and Understanding,” slowed to a gentlemanly observation compared to Costello’s signature vitriolic protest, and Costello’s heartache classic “Alison,” the recording of which Lowe produced, rendered on this night like a lost-love, I-knew-the-bride ballad for the ages.