Pop: Love's a hurtin' thing

NICK LOWE/ DAN PENN/ SPOONER OLDHAM

HER MAJESTY'S THEATRE

LONDON

HOW DO we place Nick Lowe these days? With care, I think. Not that he's so tough, though his songs would like to make you think his heart's firmed up round the edges. Rather, the problem is one of geographical location.

Still known as Basher, the boy (OK, a year off 50) from Walton-on-Thames no longer belts out the jovial stuff of his post-punk heyday (you'll remember "I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass"); his soul has moved far, far west, hovering around the American states of Tennessee and Texas, taking on, and making it his own, the stripped-down darkness of Hank Williams or the eerie laments of his ex father-in-law Johnny Cash.

Fittingly, Lowe had shipped over the legendary R&B songwriters Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham to set the tone. Gifted white guys from Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Penn and Oldham spent their youth composing Southern soul for respected black artists who were proud to sing it, but they put over the songs themselves just as fruitfully. They gave us "I'm Your Puppet", then a grainy country-soul interpretation of "Cry Like A Baby". "Dark End of the Street" was embattled with guilt and pain; illicit love has never been so beautifully explained. For an encore they sang a deadpan version of "Spend Some Time with the Old Folks" ("they've all had heart attacks and light strokes"). Rare stuff.

Lowe, minutes later, was something more shadowy. A cool-looking dude with a ludicrous white quiff, he opened his solo acoustic set with "In The Middle of it All", an offhand tale of calamitous desolation during which, this early, you could hear sniffing along the row. "Soulful Wind" showed his guitar dexterity, a rock-a-cha rhythm that broke to deliver a rising tornado when it had to, Lowe in relaxed, Buddy Holly voice - when he lightens up, his sensibility has a pre-Beatles, almost pre-Bill Haley shimmer.

He was joined by a tight little trio whose warmth, particularly Geraint Evans on keyboards, made "Cruel To Be Kind" and "Half a Boy and Half a Man" almost Cajun affairs; but what Lowe mainly purveys is tribulation- hollowed blues. Tracks from his album Dig My Mood made it clear that "love's a hurtin' thing", and on "Lover, Don't Go", his voice barely rose above a death rattle. The woe and consequent stories of embittered curmudgeons (like the Cash-ready "The Kind of Man That I've Become," whose "heart's a prune/When it once was a plum") couldn't exist if the singer hadn't cared too much to begin with; and Lowe's devotionals are masterful. Creeping out early to get a jump on my copy, I'm stopped in my tracks by a delicate cascade of notes, and so is a hefty bouncer in the hall. Both of us pussyfoot back, open the auditorium door a crack, and listen to "Shelley, My Love". As it ends, the big guy's biting his lip.

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