Nick Lowe has always been a pop chameleon — on the cover of his first solo album, the recently reissued “Jesus of Cool” (Yep Roc), he’s dressed as a punk rocker, a folkie, a psychedelic glam star and a tartan-wearing pop star. Thirty years later, he’s still trying on new styles for size: At his solo turn at the El Rey on Friday night, he looked for all the world like a Nashville eminence grise with his impeccable silver pompadour and beautifully tailored clothes. It’s a pose he wears with dazzling comfort, making for a wonderful evening of “entertainment in the entertainment hub of the world.”
Lowe has always been a master formalist, and his 90-minute set was filled with perfectly constructed country pop, songs that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the radio next to “Kings of the Road” or “Behind Closed Doors.”
The songs were drawn mostly from his last two solo albums, “At My Age” and “The Convincer” (both on Yep Roc); their models of economic construction are rooted in the work of songwriters Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, Harlan Howard and Billy Shirrell.
As elegant and finely constructed as his clothes, they belie their casual sound and performance with clever turnarounds and melodic modulations. He’s populated them with a collection of cads, lonely guys and sad bastards, men who either see woman as pets or play things — “I trained her to love me, so I could go and break her heart” — or not at all. And “The Man That I’ve Become” could have been written for Johnny Cash.
As the evening progressed, Lowe moved from cynical balladry into more optimistic territory, declaring that “without love, I’m half human,” and promising a woman he would not be deterred by her rejection — he knows she’ll come around, he says, because “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
He also dipped back into his early career with a still-jaunty “I Knew the Bride” (from his Rockpile days) and “(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding,” a song that’s moved from prankish parody in its original version by Brinsley Schwarz to the angry passionate howl of Elvis Costello’s hit version to the unblinking earnestness of Lowe’s new take.
Robyn Hitchcock was less successful in his opening slot. Part of the problem could be that the eccentric Hitchcock does not do well in a short 45-minute set. His quaintly surreal psychedelic folk needs time to make an impression, and his loopy patter doesn’t translate to an unconverted aud. His distracted efforts did not help matters.