TVD Live: Nick Lowe & Los Straitjackets at The Hamilton, 4/7

Nick Lowe is calling his tour with Los Straitjackets the “Quality Rock & Roll Revue” and it’s no idle boast. The cool, memorable songs of Lowe with his smooth, elder statesman air, combined with the funhouse snarl of the twangin’ Straitjackets, in their Mexican wrestling masks and goofy stage presence, makes for pretty well-balanced entertainment. With Nashville singer Dawn Landes rounding out the bill as opener at The Hamilton Live in DC, it made for a pretty satisfying evening.

The quality descriptor, though, probably originates from Lowe’s 2013 Christmas album Quality Street, the subsequent holiday tours for which also involved Los Straitjackets, who had a couple Christmas albums of their own. When the band recorded its own instrumental tribute to Lowe, What’s So Funny About Peace, Love And… two years ago, it was practically a job application to become a permanent backing collaborator with the English songwriter.

And while their stage union surprisingly tended to slow down formerly breakneck gems like “Heart of the City” and “I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock ’n’ Roll”), their entwined touring by now has resulted not only in finding Lowe songs that bring out the best of each act — “Shting-Shtang” among them — they are also creating new recordings that show how well their shared sensibilities — and love for classic ’50s pop and rock — have meshed.

On a pair of fun EPs, the latest of which is “Trombone” on YepRoc, they provided timeless sounding ballads like “Blue on Blue” as well as super well-chosen oldies, like “Raincoat in the River,” an obscure single from Aussie rocker Dig Richards that fits right in the knowing Lowe groove.

Lowe, cheerful and fit at 70, knows the game. He has to play some hits that brought the fans out, as well as play the new stuff, unappetizing as the prospect may be (“The four most dreaded words in the English language,” he joked. “‘Something from the new album.’”) And there were the delicious covers.

From his own catalog came the sprightly opening “So It Goes,” and mid-career turns like “Without Love” and his highest charting US hit, “Cruel to be Kind” near the end of the show. But there were limitations he seemed to indicate, leaving “I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass” to an all instrumental version closing Los Straitjackets’ mid-show set, with Lowe joining them for only the last three words.

That mid-set Straitjackets showcase was pretty sweet, with the guitar pizzazz of originals “Kawanga!” and fun to the point of novelty, “Space Mosquito” and “Itchy Chicken.” They altered their set a bit to include a song with a local connection, “University Blvd,” a Beltway exit they seemed to know. “Viva University Boulevard!” said guitarist Eddie Angel. “Viva Takoma Park!” Their highlight, though, was a supercharged version of a familiar pop melody, Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” that sounded like Telstar crashing into the Titanic.

A sixpack of instrumentals may be the best way to see Los Straitjackets; it’s certainly a way to force their best stuff in the most impressive way. And the break provided Lowe with a chance to even change his shirt, and come back unflappable for his second half, with new things like “Love Starvation” shining alongside the good time jolt of “Half a Boy and Half a Man.” Also in his knapsack of unexpected covers were things as obscure as Brenda Lee’s “Here Comes That Feeling” and Marty Robbins’ “You Don’t Owe Me a Thing,” — both simple, tuneful ditties that fit snugly in the Lowe wheelhouse.

Yes, the slightly relaxed “Heart of the City” and “I Knew the Bride” ended the main set, but the encore was an indelible jolt, from the opening “Batman Theme” that had Los Straightjackets blending in “Wipeout” while wearing their own costume change – matching lime green Joker suits, to the well-chosen Rockpile number “When I Write the Book,” to the song whose inclusion in The Bodyguard soundtrack allowed Lowe a bit of luxury late in life; a song whose words never cease to hit a nerve, and did again in our time of national despair, “What’s So Funny (‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.”

And truly a sign of a man who knows his audience was pulling out a final song he didn’t write from 40 years ago, but one from a debut album he produced, Elvis Costello’s “Alison,” also the only solo thing he did all night in the quality show.

SETLIST
So It Goes
Ragin’ Eyes
Without Love
You Inspire Me
Shting-Shtang
Raincoat in the River
Somebody Cares for Me
Tokyo Bay
Kawanga!
University Blvd
Space Mosquito
Itchy Chicken
My Heart Will Go On
I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass
You Don’t Owe Me a Thing
Love Starvation
Blue on Blue
Half a Boy and Half a Man
Here Comes That Feeling
Cruel to Be Kind
Heart of the City
I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock ’n’ Roll)

Batman Theme / Wipeout
When I Write the Book
(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding

Alison

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