Lloyd Cole promised his North American fans that he would play a short and sweet set (“Everyone will be in bed by 9:30!”) in his backyard on the eve of a mini-tour across the East coast and Midwest. He also promised that the set wouldn’t be heavy on “the hits,” instead concentrating on new material. He lied on both fronts. The unusually chipper Cole ripped through an exuberant 20+ set of songs spanning his extensive catalog, with the aid of his newly minted Small Ensemble (local veterans Mark Schwaber and Matt Cullen on mandolin and steel string guitars), at the Brass Cat in Easthampton last night. Opening with “No Blue Skies,” Cole staked out his terrain—an artist revisiting old haunts not for nostalgia sake, but for clarity: “You wanna leave me baby be my guest/All I’m gonna do is cry/And then I’m gonna find there’s someone else/And tear the stars out of the sky.” Cole has always succeeded at capturing the sturm und drang of intimate relations, and playing to such a tiny room captured that underlying essence. Cole officially unveiled the Small Ensemble late last year with mixed results. To be fair, it was their first go-around and understandably they lacked a certain chemistry at their initial performance.

Last night’s show made up for that. Nattily dressed in suits and ties, the Small Ensemble set out to prove that they were more than Lloyd’s hired guns. Schwaber and Cullen sparked from the onset. They tore through Cole’s catalog as if they owned it, and all the early uncertainties had disappeared. Trading three part harmonies on “When You’re Young” was most unexpected, and the Small Ensemble made theater of it, emphasizing Cole’s role with the lyrical refrain of “when he was young.” “Perfect Skin” was delivered as a sexy ballad, rather than the nervous hiccup that it was on Cole’s seminal recording, “Rattlesnakes.” Schwaber and Cullen’s texturing and fine finger-picking imbued the tune with an old-timey feeling that transcended its ‘80s time-capsule appeal—to the audience’s thunderous applause. Like a first-time dad, Cole beamed with pride.

Cole swapped licks with Schwaber and Cullen on “Undressed” as if they had played together for an eternity. Cole singing “I’m not even drinking/And I feel fine/Isn’t that scary?” garnered uproarious laughter from the crowd. The threesome traded off instruments throughout the evening. For the most part they kept to their acoustic guitars, but when required—mandolins and banjos came out, especially for the encore of “Like Lovers Do” and “Forest Fire.” On “Forest Fire,” Cole took over lead guitar duties and finished out a fine solo, while Schwaber’s tidy finger-picking and Cullen’s steady strumming fleshed out the Bo Diddley-esque arrangement. It was a transcendent moment and a giant leap forward for Cole’s Small Ensemble.

Publication: North Hampton Media

Publication date: 22/01/10