"Nick the Knife" is one of Nick Lowe's nicknames, and "Basher" another, for the way the sharp-witted Brit efficiently pounded out the classic albums he produced for Elvis Costello and Graham Parker, among others, that helped define the 1970s and early 1980s pub-rock and New Wave rock eras.
Lowe was all smooth and suave, however, when he played the Scottish Rite Auditorium in Collingswood on Saturday, when the blade-thin frosty haired songwriter brought his Quality Holiday Revue to the Camden County venue, where he was backed by Mexican wrestling mask-wearing instrumental guitar band Los Straitjackets.
Effortless understatement has been the the 65 year old guitarist's modus operandi during the underrated mellow-down-easy stage of his career that began with The Impossible Bird in 1994.
But you didn't have to listen too close to pick up a cutting lyric, such as in "A Dollar Short Of Happy," the droll Christmas blues he penned with his pal Ry Cooder for last year's non-sentimental 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 confronting 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 on solo album and with his '70s band, Rockpile. 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 piano player who died this month in his adopted hometown of Austin, Texas. Lowe paid tribute to the man known as "Mac" as "a really fantastic bloke, the archetypal Mod, and what we used to call a real groover."
Lowe said he never considered canceling the tour, in part because McLagan was "the original Mr. The Show Must Go On." Nashville country-rocker Webb Wilder not only filled in as acoustic opener, he also gamely manned the merch table, where T-shirts displayed the visages of Lowe, the lucha libre disguised Straitjackets, and McLagan.
After his solo opening, the black bespectacled Lowe was joined by the Straitjackets, an ensemble expert not only at Ventures-style surf rock instrumentals, but also 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 extremely musical Straitjackets - featuring ace guitarist Eddie Angel - got their own showcase as Lowe exited the stage, 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. In an encore, 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 go home without hearing vintage favorites such as "Cruel To Be Kind," "I Knew The Bride" and "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," his song that's best known in its aggressively angry Costello version, but which he sang Saturday with tenderness tinged with irony.