Nick Lowe

Almost every song Nick Lowe sings is about love. Not love that works out, necessarily. The 55-year-old, silver-maned British singer-songwriter is too much of a cynic to deliver happily-ever-after bromides. Instead he often prefers visits to love's seedier, sadder boroughs: jealousy, despair, abandonment, loneliness.

Lowe led a parade of such songs at a sold-out solo acoustic show at the Birchmere Sunday night. His rich, smoky voice was the ideal, world-weary vehicle for songs like "Without Love," the upbeat, but still devastating, "Cruel to Be Kind," a cover of John Hiatt's "She Don't Love Nobody," and "Lover Don't Go," a jazzy, countryish blend that sounded like Charlie Rich at his soulful, pleading best.

Darker still were songs of existential crisis, the bitter, self-recriminating "The Man That I've Become," and "Lately I've Let Things Slide," a magnificently sad composition that reveals despair in mundane, everyday details: "Smoking I once quit/Now I've got one lit/I just fell back into it."

Like the best of cynics and sad sacks, however, Lowe employs humor to make his observations palatable. He complimented the Birchmere for the show's 7:30 start time ("an incredibly civilized and sensible hour"). Later, after singing a song about a man who becomes a serial heartbreaker to pay back every woman who has done him wrong, Lowe offered dryly, "Well, there's one for the girls."

It seemed no coincidence that two songs about the world's being a mess bookended Lowe's performance. He started the evening with "There Will Never Be Any Peace (Until God Is Seated at the Conference Table)" and concluded the show (before a two-song encore) with a slow, almost elegiac version of "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding?" Both felt appropriately weighted down and forlorn, and not funny in the least.

Keyboardist and singer Geraint Watkins, who joined Lowe for several songs, opened with a brief set that included a cover of the standard "At Last" and an odd, scat-filled version of the Beach Boys' "Heroes and Villains." Watkins's soaring, soulful voice made for moments of wonderful music, but his playing was overcooked and ultimately detracted from the songs.

-- Joe Heim

Rye Coalition

Most bands at the Black Cat are booked for the appropriate stage. But sometimes shows are poorly placed, whether an uncomfortably packed Backstage set or -- as with the Rye Coalition concert on Sunday night -- a sparsely attended Mainstage booking. Likening the intimate setting to that of the TV show "Inside the Actors Studio," singer Ralph Cuseglio joked, "After the show, you can ask us questions about our craft."

Despite the low attendance, the New Jersey quintet rocked its heart out. The furious guitar attack from Herb Wiley, Jon Gonnelli and bassist Justin Morey was egged on by drummer David Leto's rabid percussion, in a set of pure muscle-rock that would have suited an AC/DC-style stadium crowd just as well as the mid-size rock club. In addition to older tunes such as "The Higher the Hair the Closer to God" and a speedy version of "Hot Strikes," the group tried out some songs from a forthcoming Dave Grohl-produced album.

Although the group paused for Cuseglio to sip a shot of Chartreuse given to him by a fan, its relentless sonic assault stayed at full force for the hour-long set. While much of the band's energy was lost in the wide gap between the stage and the scattered audience, there was some good news: that extra space gave the crowd ample opportunity for some vigorous head-nodding, which was as close as anyone got to dancing.

-- Catherine P. Lewis

Water Bowl Percussion

The concert Sunday afternoon at the Freer Gallery of Art was billed as "water bowl percussion," and it did include examples of jalatharangam, in which tones result from hitting the rims of porcelain bowls filled with varying levels of water. Yet the performance showcased an array of South Indian percussion, and was dominated by the mridangam, the barrel drum played by Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman, who led the seven-person troupe.

South Indian (or Carnatic) music is distinct from, yet closely related to, its North Indian (or Hindustani) counterpart. Some of the instruments heard at the Freer suggested links to Africa and the South Pacific: The chiming notes of the jalatharangam, played by Nemani Somayajulu, recalled the tuned percussion of Indonesia and the Philippines, and the edakka, played by Unnikrishnan, resembled the African talking drum. But the sound of the mridangam -- which was played during one number by Rajna Swaminathan, a 13-year-old Maryland girl -- is akin to the tabla, Hindustani music's preeminent drum.

The six principal musicians, who included clay-pot player E.M. Subramaniam, drummer Mattanur Sankaran Kutty and violinist Nagai Sriram, coalesced in brief ecstatic passages, notably during the concluding "Ragam Thaanam Pallavi." But where African or Indonesian styles feature intricate ensemble playing, Indian music emphasizes solos and duets. Alone or in tandem with one of the other musicians, Sivaraman showed what his mridangam could do, playing patterns of cascading complexity. In a two-hour performance that included numerous lengthy, instructive asides, however, the capabilities of the other instruments -- even the jalatharangam -- were scarcely explored.

-- Mark Jenkins

Old 97's

Having survived the loss of a cozy major-label home and a potentially rift-inducing solo album from bandleader Rhett Miller, the Old 97's might have wanted to explore fresh new directions on "Drag It Up," their sixth album and first for New West Records. But they returned to their roots instead, churning out a batch of country-indie rock rife with appealingly scruffy hooks. And the band members sounded like their comfortable old selves Sunday night at the 9:30 club, cranking out nearly two hours of tunes shot through with country licks and Miller's smart-boy wordplay.

Hailed by their fans as key alt-country figures and by detractors as little more than a twangy frat band, the 97's rise or fall on the strength of Miller's songs and the support of Murry Hammond, whose bass, harmonies and round glasses are the band's hallmarks. Of course it was mostly fans who nearly filled the 9:30, so the wide-ranging set that Miller and Hammond steered from older songs ("Doreen," "Streets of Where I'm From") to some of their more engaging new tunes ("Won't Be Home," "In the Satellite Rides a Star," "Borrowed Bride") were enthusiastically received.

Miller sang several solo numbers at the start of two encore sessions -- casting doubt on his commitment to the band concept -- but still revved with delight into 97's standards including "Barrier Reef" and "West Texas Teardrops." So the latest Old 97's gig was a lot like earlier Old 97's gigs. Many who bounced along Sunday night probably wish that would never change.

-- Patrick Foster

Nick Lowe's show started early in the evening but was still plenty dark.