Purist Retro Rock Fun with Nick Lowe and Los Straitjackets at Lincoln Center Out of Doors

by delarue

One of the differences between Lincoln Center Out of Doors and many of the other free summer concert series around town is that it caters to communities rather than demographics. Perhaps more importantly, Lincoln Center isn’t turning a genuinely free public event into a partially-free one by reserving the seats for paying customers.

Thursday night out back in Damrosch Park was Bollywood night, and the diversity of the crowd went far beyond a well-represented Indian contingent. Friday was hip-hop nerd night. Last night was for the old beerbellied guys in baseball hats.

Surveying the audience, the question was how many of the gang who hung out at the old Lakeside Lounge a decade ago – or two decades ago – would be here. New York powerpop cult heroes Matt Keating and Pete Galub – neither of whom is particularly old, beerbellied or known for wearing hats – were in the house, along with a smattering of more mainstream but less talented names that would resonate with the retirees who still listen to radio stations like WFMU on the drive back to Jersey.

Three years ago, Nick Lowe played here, solo on acoustic guitar, and ended up mopping the floor with opening act Jason Isbell. Lowe is a band guy and has been for a long time, so what was most impressive about that show was his expansive, eclectically tasteful rhythm guitar chops. This time out he had the world’s best backing band, Los Straitjackets.

Obviously, Los Straitjackets aren’t usually a backing band. They’re the world’s third-greatest surf rock group, which might sound like a dis until you consider that the only acts in front of them are hall of famers Dick Dale and the Ventures, who invented the style. The last time Los Straitjackets played Lincoln Center, they had to follow slinky Niger duskcore favorites Etran Finatawa, but that didn’t phase them. This time their tantalizingly short mini-set midway through turned out to be the highlight of the night, in fact the highlight of this year’s festival so far.

It’s amazing that a band who’ve been around for more than twenty years sound every bit as fresh as they were when they started…and their chops are even better now. Few bands, let alone veteran acts like this, have more fun onstage. Guitarists Eddie Angel and Danny Amis finished each others’ phrases without missing a beat, traded snazzy riffs and lead lines over the swinging 2/4 pulse of bassist Pete Curry and drummer Chris Sprague. The former brings a surprising subtlety and touch to the music,  fingerpicking instead of playing with a pick. Sprague took centerstage in a vaudevillian get-the-mosquito bit that had the audience howling.

But Angel is more of a cutup than anyone else in the band: his litany of quotes, from Brian Jones to Chuck Berry, drew plenty of laughs as well. Meanwhile, Amis fired off splashes of elegant jazz chords and some tremolo-picking that was so seamless that for a second it seemed like there was an organ in the mix somewhere. Lines formed in the lanes between the sets, everybody capturing the moment on video as the band shifted through darkly Spanish-flavored mock-Ninja Turtles strut, lots of bittersweet twang and finally a droll mashup of the Batman theme and Wipeout as their encore.

With these guys behind him, Lowe didn’t have to work too hard guitarwise. In strong voice and good spirits, he led them through what he accurately termed a “Perky, family-friendly” set of hits and deeper album cuts, from wry pub-rockers like Heart of the City and Half a Boy and Half a Man, to the cynical Everybody Changes and Sensitive Man, to the expansive, soul-infused ballads You Inspire Me and Til the Real Thing Comes Along.

The most resonant number of the night turned out to be I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock n Roll). In a city under siege by young wannabe Trumps from out of state whose disinterest in the arts and slavish obedience to social media makes their stodgy parents seem absolutely radical by comparison, that slight, vaudevillian pop tune found new meaning. We all knew the bride – for about ten seconds, before she became a Park Slope monster stroller mom.

Finally, Angel, who’d been keeping  his jangly leads and fills on a short leash, couldn’t resist a little tongue-in-cheek sparkle, and Sprague was on top of it in a second with a droll, rumbling turnaround. This is a good match: catchy retro pop tunesmith and a band who can take those tunes to places most bands would never dream of, or dare to.

Opening act the Cut Worms were about as original as a Chinatown Rolex, but delivered a pleasantly low-key, extremely Everly Brothers-influenced set, like a less Lynchian version of another Lincoln Center favorite, the Cactus Blossoms. Festival impresario Jill Sternheimer obviously has a thing for melancholy retro Americana; she could do a lot worse. The Brooklyn quartet’s best songs were a surprisingly shambling, brooding ballad delivered solo acoustic by frontman/guitarist Max Clarke, and a honkytonk-flavored number about printing photos in a darkroom. That might have been the night’s most retro moment of all.

Lincoln Center Out of Doors continues today, and this afternoon’s show is a doozy: the lush, hauntingly plaintive bounce of the Cheres Ukrainian Folk Ensemble along with Albanian superstar vocal/accordion duo Merita Halili & Raif Hyseni and their orchestra on the plaza starting at 1 PM. See you under the trees!

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