PAWLING, N.Y. — Four men who wear Mexican wrestling masks onstage have reacquainted singer Nick Lowe with his rock 'n' roll roots.
The British composer of "Cruel to Be Kind" and "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" was deep into the country squire phase of his career a few years back, performing mostly acoustically. The death of drummer Bobby Irwin took an emotional toll on Lowe, leading to the dissolution of his band.
He's 69 years old now, the shock of hair completely white. He can still write meticulously-crafted pop songs and perform them with sweetness and subtlety. Yet as the years went by, it became easier to forget Lowe's nickname was once "the basher" for tear-down-the-house rock shows (some alcohol required) and a get-it-done-quickly recording style.
Enter Los Straitjackets.
The Nashville-based quartet is a rarity, an instrumental rock band who recall the Ventures and Raybeats, and perform onstage in matching suits and unmatching masks. Your first instinct is to laugh, until the power and personality of the music takes over.
They also share Lowe's record company and manager, who suggested they get together when the singer needed a band for a tour supporting a holiday album. A more enduring partnership was forged.
"Like everybody else, I couldn't believe it when they put on their masks and changed into suits," Lowe said. "But now I'm totally used to it. The way we play together now, it actually feels like I'm in the band."
With the Straitjackets' push, Lowe has pulled chestnuts like "So It Goes," ''Heart of the City" and Rockpile's "When I Write the Book" from his catalog, reclaiming ownership of songs he'd largely left in the past.
Collaborating was an easy "yes" for the Straitjackets, who are longtime fans and recently released an album with instrumental versions of Lowe's songs.
"We had nothing to lose," said founding guitarist Eddie Angel. "He had his credibility on the line going onstage with four guys in wrestling masks. He really did take a chance on us. He wasn't sure how his fans would react."
There were initial wrinkles. When they started rehearsals, the Straitjackets acted like a side band supporting a frontman. Lowe told them instead to learn the basic material and perform it like they were Straitjackets' songs and he would join in.
During a recent show in Daryl Hall's club north of New York, Lowe and the band played two sets together, wrapped around an interlude when the Straitjackets performed alone, including a cover of Lowe's "Lately I've Let Things Slide" and their goofy rendition of the "Batman" theme.
"We're like a lightning rod for the silliness, so he can do what he wants," Angel said.
They've teamed in the studio as well, for a four-song EP led with the cut "Tokyo Bay," and made more recordings since then.
From his onstage demeanor alone, it's clearly been a blast for Lowe.
"They're a right handful, as well," he said. "It's not like I'm touring with a bunch of old crones. It does feel natural to me, because they've got such a swing and rhythm. It's not just a hammering. I love the way they play when they play my stuff and I feel really, really lucky."