Nick Lowe shook his head. "Fabulous reading," he said, blown away like every other fan in the house, only with a better seat. Lowe stood on stage Friday at the Great American Music Hall and watched his old mate Elvis Costello sit at the piano and transform Lowe's "I'm a Mess," from his 2001 album The Convincer, into a heart-scraping, wrenching cry of despair.
"Fabulous reading," he repeated, as amazed as everyone else at the sold out benefit.
"Costello Sings Lowe/Nick Sings Elvis" read the marquee outside. In his fourth annual fundraiser, Mill Valley pianist Austin de Lone, once again, presented his longtime associate, Elvis Costello, in a special, one-time-only nightclub performance on behalf of a housing project for children who suffer from Prader-Willi syndrome, like de Lone's son, a disorder that leaves its victims perpetually hungry.
De Lone's benefit has become part of the Hardly Strictly weekend in San Francisco, tucked into the festival's off-night, with Costello and Lowe conveniently in town to perform at the free music festival over the weekend in Golden Gate Park. Marin County rockers Bonnie Raitt and Sammy Hagar were among the sold out house at the first of two performances.
Strumming matching acoustic guitars, Costello and Lowe launched with a rollicking "Here Comes the Weekend," the Dave Edmunds song Lowe used to sing with him in Rockpile. With Costello following with Lowe's "When I Write the Book" and Lowe countering with Costello's "Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head," the two began trading off versions of each other's song, especially reworked for the occasion.
Costello, wearing a rumpled suit, tilted his straw pork pie hat precipitously. Snowy-haired Lowe, also wearing thick horn-rimmed glasses, looked like nothing so much as a schoolteacher on holiday.
Behind these two demented Neverly Brothers was a six-piece band that included guitarist Bill Kirchen, whose twangy filigree decorated almost every song, and keyboardist Bob Andrews, who played with Lowe in the Paleolithic era of British pub rock with Brinsley Schwarz. Before the evening was over, all the other musicians sang their favorite Lowe and Costello songs as well (keyboardist Andrews did a killer, New Orleans-style version of Lowe's "I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass").
Perhaps not surprisingly, both Costello and Lowe suited the other's material to their own style. Lowe took more genial, low-key turns through Costello songs such as "Mystery Dance" or "Poisoned Rose" than the more urgent versions by Costello. His lovely, lithe version of "Alison" followed some recollections of serving as producer on the first three Elvis Costello albums.
"I smoked cigarettes," he said, "told the odd joke and watched Declan make his records."
Lowe dedicated the song to John Ciambotti, bass player for the Marin County rock group Clover that backed Costello on his first album, My Aim Is True. Ciambotti, who died earlier this year, participated in a reunion with Clover and Costello at the first de Lone benefit three years ago.
Costello brought his trademark intensity to the little known "Don't Lose Your Grip On Love," from Lowe's Brinsley Schwartz days. He slowed down Lowe's "Cruel To Be Kind" and gave the final choruses a kind of Van Morrison sha-la-la treatment. His version of Lowe's punkish "Heart Of the City" gave the song new life. Their inevitable finale of the Nick Lowe song Elvis made famous, "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," was the crowning touch.
The two plumbed the far reaches of each other's catalog, not just the obvious, easy choices. There were music stands everywhere on stage and the occasional bobbled lyric, but the crowd of hard core fans hung on every line and cheered at every opportunity.
Elvis and Nick gave them plenty to cheer about.