"I'm bound to wind up one lonely, lonely twisted old man," Nick Lowe sang midway through his set Wednesday evening at Fletcher Opera Theater in Raleigh. The lyric—from "I Trained Her To Love Me," a song on Lowe's 2006 album, At My Age—partly portrays how Lowe has painted himself in his autumn years: an ultra-cool crooner of songs about hard knocks in life and love.
And yet there's something inherently and utterly charming, even jovial, about Lowe's latter-day disposition. He may be down and out as he confides in us about how "Lately I've Let Things Slide" and details the effects of "What Lack of Love Has Done," but he delivers his blues with the spirit of a survivor. Sorrow comes tempered with equanimity, and a dash of bittersweet humor: When a lover has "left me high and dry in a loveless land" and friends ask "how I've stopped contemplating what I now have not," the answer is classic Lowe: "I Read a Lot."
It helps, too, that, to paraphrase his set-closing number, he still knows the groom who used to rock 'n' roll. Backed by a terrific band featuring keyboardist Geraint Watkins, guitarist Johnny Scott, bassist Matt Radford and drummer Bobby Irwin, Lowe frequently kicked things up a notch during a set that might have seemed a tad short (a little more than an hour, followed by 20 minutes of encore) but covered quite a bit of ground. He went back to his Rockpile days with "Heart" and "When I Write the Book," delivered a terrific upbeat take of his early solo hit "Cruel to Be Kind," touched upon his mid-'90s comeback years with "I Live on a Battlefield" (slyly noting that Diana Ross covered it but that it was "not her finest hour"), and brought us up-to-date with a handful of songs from his more recent albums on the Traingle-based label Yep Roc, highlighted by "House for Sale" from last year's The Old Magic.
That the set list ultimately stretched to 22 songs despite running just under 90 minutes speaks to a hallmark of Lowe's songwriting: He's not one for wasted words and spaces. If it can't be said in less than four minutes—and often less than three—Lowe generally won't bother. His backing crew was similarly economical; solos were never for show, but always tasteful, to the point, and in service of the song.
For all of Lowe's reputation as a songwriter—capped by "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," delivered beautifully in the encore with help from opening act Tift Merritt and her pedal steel player Eric Heywood—two of last night's best moments came when Lowe tackled other artists' songs. Near the end of the set, he and the band hit their most fevered pitch of the night on the 1961 Gene McDaniels tune "Tower of Strength," a brilliant resurrection of a too-little-known gem. And Lowe closed the night onstage by himself for a heartbreaking verson of Elvis Costello's "Alison," a fitting finale given that Lowe was in the producer's chair when Costello recorded it 35 years ago.
Merritt's opening set was quite well received, not surprisingly given that Raleigh remains her hometown audience despite her relocation to New York many years ago. She mixed a couple of new tunes in with selections from her 2010 album See You on the Moon and her 2008 radio hit "Broken." She noted with wonder that her debut album, Bramble Rose, is now 10 years in her rearview mirror. Then she sang its title track as a poignant memory of those coming-of-age days in North Carolina.