When I was in sixth or seventh grade, one of my teachers had us break into groups and gave us an assignment that attempted to connect our interests and passions with the discipline at hand. So as we compiled our alphabetical list of--errr, I can't recall exactly. People? Things? Anyway, when our group reached the letter "N," I suggested Nick Lowe, who at the time had the occasional video on MTV and enjoyed some radio airplay. My friend's reply: a withering sneer of the variety so masterfully deployed by teenage girls. Fast-forward to 2008, I didn't bother informing the same friend--a dear pal to this day--that I was headed out to see Nick Lowe at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival.
Nick Lowe, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, October 4, 2008: I'm obsessed with the idea of musical DNA--that is, some inherent element in your tastes and preferences that you can't escape. Granted, I don't think anyone comes out of the womb knowing they like classical or hip-hop or rock, but I love the idea of those musical tropes that get under your skin without your even knowing it until many years down the line. The two acts I caught on Saturday at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival are prime examples of these stealthy survivors.
Back to that Mean Girls moment from my pre-pubescent years: My friend had a point. We were a bit too young for Nick Lowe at the time, and we listened to synth-pop bands who wore eyeliner and frilly shirts--nothing like the pub rock Nick was known for. Yet, though I skipped the '80s-oriented Regeneration Tour this summer, I made a point of hitting this gig (the price of admission and proximity to my flat helped too).
On the surface, it's pretty easy to see/hear why: Nick's timeless songwriting and soulful voice, though they might never be in vogue, certainly never go out of style. And those rich, warm tones were complemented by nothing but simple acoustic guitar. In addition, despite all the associations he's shared with so many other artists on the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass roster, Nick went completely solo for his set. Thus, there were no visitors from the Prader-Willi benefits from the two preceding nights--or from any point in his career, for that matter.
But his actual set was a different story, encompassing his handful of hits and, more abundantly, fan favorites. Of course, "Cruel to Be Kind" got a huge reception, but even Nick was surprised when the crowd whooped appreciatively for the more recent release "I Trained Her to Love Me." And do you even have to guess his closing number? Sure, it was "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding," but the slower, more deliberate take made for a lovely tidbit. And to top it all off, Nick couldn't have been more charming. I don't think I've ever heard such an effortlessly engaging performer.
Immediately preceding Nick were Gary Louris and Mark Olson from the Jayhawks, two years into their reunion and now with a new album to show off. They performed songs from that upcoming release, as well as from the Jayhawks catalog. Gary, a little surprisingly, forgot some of the words to "Sister Cry," and his voice couldn't quite reach some of the high notes on "Blue." Their mellow, melodic set suited the cozy grove beautifully on this gorgeous Saturday afternoon.
» the whole damn crowd seemed so far away