Last Night: Nick Lowe at the Continental Club

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Nick Lowe Continental Club May 7, 2012

Nick Lowe learned a lesson Monday night: Houston rocks, and Houston will shut up and listen.

Lowe and his band seemed slightly flummoxed by the Continental Club and a beyond-capacity crowd Monday night as they worked through a set that was as carefully laid out as Google mapping instructions.

We're not going to say Lowe was a bit out of touch with the nation's fourth-largest city, but at times it seemed like he couldn't believe this many people showed up on a Monday night, paid $40 a ticket and received every bit of the show like religious fanatics.

Opening solo with the tear-jerking "Stoplight Roses," Lowe established immediately that he's still got the golden pipes. He didn't so much take the crowd as the crowd took him and infused him with electricity. The crowd came to worship and pay respect, and the guru was finally in the room.

It only got better when Lowe broke into "Heart," an up-tempo ditty that could be read several ways. Was Lowe's heart really "pounding like a hammer" as he settled in for the night? We couldn't tell.

But as his band tiptoed onto the stage as he began "What Lack of Love Has Done," it seemed Lowe had found his bearings and realized this Houston might be more than he was expecting. A lot more.

By the fourth tune, Lowe and his crackerjack band of legends -- Bobby Irwin on drums, Geraint Watkins on keys, Rich Radford on bass and Van Morrison veteran Johnny Scott on guitar -- had loosened up enough to rock the crowd with a hard-twanging version of Lowe's evergreen anthem, "Raging Eyes," and the game was really on.

"Raging Eyes" is one of those deceptively simple pop tunes that roll out of Lowe's pen with such ease. But just hearing Lowe sing "Sometimes she's as mean as an M-16 automatic" made things very right in the world.

Give Lowe credit: He's been at this so long he knows how to construct a set list. He segued into the tragic George Jones-ish tear-jerker "Lately I've Let Things Slide" and it was pure magic. "I Trained Her to Love Me," "Has She Got a Friend" and "I Live on a Battlefield" sealed the deal; the Continental has seldom seen a band with this much finesse and professionalism.

Expertly mixing his new material with the tried-and-true chestnuts, by the time he dropped his hit "Cruel To Be Kind," he owned the crowd as much as it owned him. With its left-handed tongue-in-cheekiness, "Sensitive Man" from 2011's That Old Magic -- "I'm a sensitive man / Although first impressions might steer you wrong" -- encapsulates all that makes Lowe one of the great writers of pop songs.

"Somebody Cares for Me" and "House for Sale," also from the new album, put the show into truly sublime territory.

Heading for the barn, Lowe powered into a cover of Frankie Vaughan's 1961 hit "Tower of Strength" and rolled a Motown treatment over his "One Thing I'll Never Be." The crowd was in heaven, touched by greatness. Scott twanged it hard through "Without Love" and well-chosen rocker finale "I Knew The Bride (When She Used To Rock and Roll)".

And with a wave, they were gone, only an hour and four minutes since Lowe had taken the stage.

But we knew this was all a little game we were playing, knew they weren't done. So after a couple of minutes of adulation, Lowe and his mates returned to please their minions with a rocking version of Rockpile's "When I Write the Book" that was rockpile solid.

Lowe's quiet ballad reading of his classic "What's So Funny (About Peace, Love, and Understanding)" was so solemn and heartfelt, the clock seemed to stop as the crowd soaked in every nuance. One test of a truly great lyric is how many ways it can be turned on its side, how many treatments it can be delivered in and still seal the deal. This one is a classic for the ages, and Lowe's melancholy, down-tempo treatment was a stunner.

Cheeky rocker "Tokyo Bay" took the crowd beyond ecstasy back to Rockpile Land, and Lowe and his mates took it home with a rockabilly treatment of "Hound Dog" that put a smile on every face in the packed house.

One more round of cheering brought Lowe back to the stage for a final treat, a stirring reading of Elvis Costello's "Alison." The encore had lasted 12 minutes.

And with his lesson in pub rock complete, one of the true masters of pop, the Jesus of Cool, was gone. But not before Houston made a deep impression on him. He will be back. And it won't be another ten years before we see Nick Lowe again.

Great songs, legendary players, a respectful, worshipping crowd -- those who missed this magical event missed something as rare as a white elephant.

Okay, Dave Edmunds, now it's your turn.

Personal Bias: Yes, ticket prices were a little out of reach for a lot of people, but we couldn't help thinking we wished a bunch of the kids in Houston's buzz bands of the moment had been here to see how the pros do it and how they carry themselves.

The Crowd: About like you'd expect with a $40 ticket price: Older, white, well-kept. And quiet, very, very quiet, during Lowe's set.

Random Notebook Dump: Drinking afterwards with drummer Bobby Irwin, he seemed genuinely touched when we told him the show was sublime. "Sublime? You really thought so? Wait till I tell the boys."

Heard in the Crowd: (During the opening set by Autumn Defense) "I think the guy on the right is a famous guitar player, but I can't think who it is." It was John Stirratt of Wilco.

Follow Rocks Off on Facebook and on Twitter at @HPRocksOff.

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