Lloyd Cole
Photo: Annie Zaleski

Lloyd Cole is the type of songwriter who incites travel, perhaps because he himself is nomadic and restless–a musical omnivore who’s traversed sparse folk, Velvet Underground-esque rock, electronica and dour jangle-pop (to name a few) during his three-decade career. And so when my husband and I found ourselves taking an unexpected Saturday trip to Ann Arbor, it felt oddly perfect to detour south and see Cole play a solo acoustic set in an unorthodox, BYOB space in Fort Wayne, Indiana, a mere two-and-change hours away.

We hopped on the freeway, squinting through early-spring sunshine that made even the barren, browned farmland seem verdant. After a quick liquor store stop — pint of Guinness, $3.41 after tax–we reached the outskirts of Fort Wayne’s downtown. Our destination was an intrinsically Midwest mixed-use countercultural oasis: a sturdy building where a yoga studio, an alt-weekly and the marketing firm One Lucky Guitar share office space.

Cole was to play in the latter company’s cozy, brick-walled back room, The B-Side, which was adorned by a velvet painting of headband-wearin’ Bruce Springsteen circa Born In The U.S.A. and a series of hanging globe lanterns. Although the “VIP section” was a well-loved couch against one wall–a mere three feet from a makeshift performance area featuring Cole’s lone microphone and pair of guitars–this didn’t feel like a living room show; it was more a rogue, guerrilla-like concert experience.

Appropriately, it was with little fanfare that the singer-songwriter strode (well, disembarked down a flight of stairs) to the mic and launched into “Past Imperfect,” a song from 2000’s Lloyd Cole & The Negatives. A rendition of “Rattlesnakes”–one of the bigger “hits” he had with beloved band the Commotions–followed. The intimate nature of the space revealed itself early and often. He inserted a polite “Bless you!” when someone sneezed during the latter song, and when several attendees showed up late–which meant they had to walk right in front of him to slink to their seats–Cole greeted them personally: “Good evening. You’ve all missed ‘Rattlesnakes.'”

The remainder of the 30-song set exhibited that same mix of self-deprecating humor and indelible songwriting. Sporting a crisp white dress shirt, a dark suit coat and neatly parted silvery hair, Cole was the very embodiment of genteel. Tales of unsteady relationships, misplaced faith and ill-fated romances resonated with debonair despair, thanks to his sublime vocals–which sounded Morrissey-esque at times, especially when he slipped into a trilling vibrato and misty reminiscing–and his ornately wrought acoustic guitars.

Lloyd Cole
Photo: Annie Zaleski

Above all, everything about Cole’s set was economical. This was certainly a function of his stripped-down configuration and no-nonsense playing style, but it also had the added effect of creating more sharp-cornered emotional suckerpunches. At the end of “Don’t Look Back,” he leaned away from the microphone and sang, unamplified, to end the song; the brief, never-to-be romance described in “2CV” was somehow even more painful; and “Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken?” was more bitter and beautiful. His referential musical moments also felt pointed rather than shticky: a few “whoa-oh-oh”s from Springsteen’s “Born To Run” slipped in at the end of the Commotions’ “Hey Rusty,” and some riffs from “Brown Sugar” and an offhand remark (“This is Keith Richards tuning”) before “Loveless.”

This type of deadpan, understated stage banter permeated the set. Before “Undressed,” Cole revealed, “I wrote the next song for Julio Iglesias.” A few loud guffaws followed, to which he replied: “I don’t know why people find that funny.” Pause. “He didn’t want the song.” Before another song, he ruminated on an A&R guy who told him he was overusing the word “babe”–Cole admitted the suit was right, in hindsight–and after covering Bob Dylan’s “I Threw It All Away,” he said off-handedly, so quietly it was easy to miss: “I was young when I wrote that.” Pause again. “I was also far too young to be having motorcycle accidents.” Cole was equally droll toward his own music, muttering “I hate that fucking piano solo” during the bridge of “Lost Weekend” and gently poking fun at his influences, such as Mott the Hoople, Simon & Garfunkel and some noted rock & roll pioneers: “I was 50 before I learned the Chuck Berry riff. Then I got carried away with it.”

But it was another casual comment he made, that in Europe some people only know him by some Commotions songs, that stood out. To a certain extent, Cole has always been dogged by his work with that band, simply because it was so good. He’s doesn’t shy away from that time–in fact, the night contained a generous sampling of songs from their three albums, including a brisker, folksier “Perfect Skin”–but he’s also not resting on those laurels. That was evident by the many tunes present from last year’s wonderful Standards, a album full of barnstorming rock & roll swagger and burnished jangle that lived up to its name. Songs such as “Diminished Ex,” “Kids Today” and “Myrtle and Rose” sounded ageless when played live.

Like another of his influences, Leonard Cohen, Cole is seamlessly adding erudite songs to his body of work. Even more telling, this Fort Wayne set underscored that Cole’s older tunes develop new wrinkles the more life experience he amasses. That’s the measure of classic music, sure, but it’s also a testament to the depth of his songwriting and the high standards to which he’s always held himself.

Setlist:

Set One:
Past Imperfect
Rattlesnakes
Kids Today
Cut Me Down
Women’s Studies
Why I Love Country Music/Broken Record
Can’t Get Arrested
Late Night, Early Town
2CV
Don’t Look Back
Myrtle and Rose
Diminished Ex

Set Two:
Are You Ready To Be Heartbroken?
Like Lovers Do
Pay For It
Music In A Foreign Language
Blue Like Mars
No Blue Skies
Undressed
Butterfly
Period Piece
Perfect Blue
Loveless
Hey Rusty (tagged with a bit of “Born To Run”)
Perfect Skin
Unhappy Song
Lost Weekend

Encore:
I Threw It All Away (Bob Dylan)
Forest Fire