Nick Lowe is nervous about returning to Madison. He stopped in the city regularly during his brief run of pop stardom, when he hit the Top 20 with "Cruel to Be Kind," toured with the famed Rockpile and shepherded the career of a young Elvis Costello. But he has not visited in many years.
"I owe a lot to those days," he remembers, "but it could just be tumbleweeds when I play this time."
Lowe's less-than-serious comment reflects not only the passing years, but also the musical transformation that accompanied them. Lowe notes that as his moment in the spotlight faded, he forged a new path, away from the cutthroat pop world. "I started to think if I could reinvent myself somehow," he says, "and find a new way of making records, where I could use the fact that I was getting older as an asset, as opposed to something I had to hide or be embarrassed about."
With this new freedom, Lowe started making music rooted in an older and wiser perspective, releasing a celebrated string of recordings that continues through 2007's At My Age. Combining skillful songcraft with increasingly "rootsy" sonic palettes, Lowe invokes a variety of musical traditions while sounding as fresh as when he boldly declared himself the Jesus of Cool on his recently rereleased solo debut.
Perhaps most notable among Lowe's rich well of influences are country, R&B and their country-soul hybrids that Lowe has long championed. Country-soul's subtle intensity, genre-blending and deep emotions permeate Lowe's work, both in his original material (including the aptly named "Soulful Wind") and selection of covers from the Chi-Lites to Faron Young.
Lowe, whose songs have been covered by both Johnny Cash and Solomon Burke, acknowledges the genres' shared terrain. Country-soul is "where pop lives, where that white and black thing meet," Lowe suggests. "It has no color, no boundaries, nothing. It's a fabulous place, if you can get to it."
Live, Lowe performs with little adornment but with great skill and impact, especially in his vocal approach. Many vocalists become less vocally expressive with age, but Lowe sings with a richness and versatility that only grow stronger. He even adds Sam Cooke-style runs and a Curtis Mayfield falsetto to his resonant, twangy baritone.
Lowe's live show is nothing less than musical microsurgery, in which he revisits, and subtly reinvents, highlights of his vast catalog. Most striking is his take on "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?", a Lowe song most identified with Costello. Lowe's recent version - slower, quieter, driven by delicately insistent vocals - turns the blazing rocker into pure gospel-soul, sacrificing none of the original's righteous indignation, and adding an understated, prayer-like beauty.
Nick Lowe's music, whether live or recorded, is a template for aging gracefully. In successfully bridging the often-painful transition between youthful pop exuberance and elder statesman status, Nick Lowe has - on top of everything else - become a teacher. Thankfully, he returns to Madison to grace us with his lessons.