Wednesday sure didn’t turn out the way anyone expected it to.
The staff of the Current was ecstatic at the prospect of getting Nick Lowe, Los Straitjackets, and Ian “Mac” McLagan into our studios for a recording session on the day of their tour launch at First Avenue. Instead, just as Lowe and the band arrived, we received word that Mac had fallen, experienced a stroke, and was in critical condition. Lowe, a consummate pro, played the session as planned, saying, “As we all know, (Mac) was a fellow who loved life, and there’s no question of us not carrying on with the tour.” As Lowe wrapped up the session with a version of his classic “Peace, Love and Understanding,” it was hard not to reflect on our loss and enjoy the salve of great performance, despite the fact that Lowe had only rehearsed two days with Los Straitjackets.
At First Avenue that night, with word of Mac’s passing that afternoon, the mood was reflective and subdued, with the generally older crowd contemplating the loss of a legend so many had hoped to see perform. Mac was one of the rare rock legends who if you met him once, you considered him a friend—he was generous, funny, spirited, and a tremendous talent. For McLagan, this was to be a great tour: on the heels of his 2014 United States release, an opportunity to connect with Lowe’s appreciative audience and share the spotlight with a great peer. It’s a shame to have lost him as he was slated to go from this tour to prepping for a long-anticipated Faces reunion in 2015 with Rod Stewart, Kenny Jones, and Ronnie Wood. (Revisit some of McLagan’s seminal work with a ten-song set presented by the Current’s Bill DeVille.)
With McLagan’s absence, First Avenue called on the Cactus Blossoms to open the show. The smooth harmonies and restrained playing of the Twin Cities’ favorite old-time country duo set the right tone for the night. Their song “Traveler’s Paradise” expressed the thoughts a lot of people were feeling about Mac’s passing. “Goodbye, sure is good to know ya / I’m so thankful for ya / that’s how I’ll always feel.”
Nick Lowe came on solo to start the show, performing two songs before stopping to address the hole in the hearts of many. “To say we’re reeling backstage is an understatement,” Lowe said. “But the show must go on. No one knew it better than Mac.” And then, “Mac, are you listening?” Lowe asked, his eyes gazing skyward. “I need your help.”
At times it seemed Lowe did need help, apologizing for his voice giving out during his big hit “Cruel to Be Kind.” The arrangements with Los Straitjackets carried the seat-of-our-pants feel of being the opening night of their collaboration, and you could tell that the flow of the show will likely be tweaked and improved as the tour goes on. But on a night of infinite sadness, those flaws could be forgotten—especially when Los Straitjackets took over for a mini-set of their surf-rockabilly-Christmas hijinks, and when the artists’ combined efforts clicked on tunes like Lowe’s “Raging Eyes” and “Half a Boy and Half a Man.”
Ending his set with a subdued version of “Peace, Love and Understanding” felt right, and you could hear a pin drop when Lowe ended the show with a lovely reading of his former mentee Elvis Costello’s “Allison.” True aim on a somber night, where like so many times in our lives, it’s the music that keeps us going through sadness and heartache.
The Cactus Blossoms
Jim McGuinn is program director at the Current. Photographer Bridget Bennett is a student at the University of Minnesota.