"Nick the Knife" is one of Nick Lowe's nicknames, and "Basher" another, for the way the sharp-witted Brit pounded out the classic albums he produced for Elvis Costello and Graham Parker, among others, that helped define the 1970s and early '80s pub-rock and New Wave eras.
Lowe was smooth and suave Saturday, however, at the Scottish Rite Auditorium in Collingswood, when the blade-thin, frosty-haired songwriter brought his Quality Holiday Revue to the Camden County venue, where he was backed by the Mexican wrestling mask-wearing guitar band Los Straitjackets.
Effortless understatement has been the 65-year-old guitarist's modus operandi during the underrated mellow-down-easy stage of his career, which began with The Impossible Bird in 1994. But you didn't have to listen hard to pick up a cutting lyric, as in "A Dollar Short of Happy," the droll Christmas blues he penned with pal Ry Cooder for last year's nonsentimental seasonal album Quality Street, which gives the current tour its name. "No more private schools or exercise machines," he sang in his tale of consumer capitalism in hard times. "No more crazy nannies getting high in the SUV."
Lowe took the stage solo and played a pair of songs, including "Heart," the snappy ode to the vital organ that's surely his favorite among his own compositions, so often has he recorded it. Then he stopped the show to say a few necessary words.
The originally scheduled opening act for the Quality tour was Ian McLagan, the much-loved Small Faces and Rolling Stones pianist, who died this month in his adopted hometown of Austin. Lowe paid tribute to "Mac" - "a really fantastic bloke, the archetypal Mod, and what we used to call a real groover."
Lowe said he didn't consider canceling the tour, in part because McLagan was "the original Mr. The Show Must Go On." Nashville country-rocker Webb Wilder filled in as acoustic opener and also gamely manned the merch table, where T-shirts displayed visages of Lowe, the lucha-libre-disguised Straitjackets, and McLagan.
After his solo opening, the bespectacled Lowe was joined by the Straitjackets, an ensemble expert not only at Ventures-style surf-rock instrumentals, but also at the R&B, country, and early rock-and-roll American vernacular styles that underpin Lowe's crafty songs.
That was displayed on Lowe originals that could pass for soul-pop standards, like "Only a Fool Breaks His Own Heart" and "Rome Wasn't Built in a Day." Occasional Quality Street tunes were mixed in. In "Christmas at the Airport," Lowe sounded none too troubled to be missing the family meal: "Don't save me any turkey, I found a burger in a bin."
The mute but highly musical Straitjackets, featuring ace guitarist Eddie Angel, got their own showcase, kicking off a mini-set with a frisky "Sleigh Ride" and giving the headliner's "I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass" a Bo Diddley beat. They also paid charming tribute to McLagan with an it's-all-too-beautiful take on the Small Faces' "Itchycoo Park."
Practiced showman that he is, Lowe didn't let the crowd leave without hearing vintage favorites such as "Cruel to Be Kind," "I Knew the Bride," and "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding," best known in its angry Costello version, which he sang with tenderness tinged with irony.