After last year’s galvanizing, three-guitar raveup at the Vic Theatre, Lloyd Cole’s performance Friday night on the same stage was somewhat of a disappointment.

In the summer of 1990, Cole brought a band to town that included New York guitar shredder Robert Quine, who kicked the singer’s folkish pop tunes into orbit with incendiary solos. Brought out for encore after encore, Cole wasn’t even the headliner (poor Michael Penn was), but he should’ve been.

The memory hadn’t faded.

“You guys were very kind to us last year,” the Scottish singer remarked before launching into his second song Friday.

The capacity audience was kind to him once again, and not just for old time’s sake.

Cole is a personable, even humble, performer with an insinuating baritone, a casual way with a cigarette and just enough facial stumble to give Mel Gibson some competition in the hunk-of-the-month department. He’s also compiled an impressive musical biography: a trio of albums with the band the Commotions and two acclaimed solo records.

His voice is relaxed and mellifluous, sliding and swooping down on notes rather than biting them off, which keeps his wispy melodies from floating away.

At times, Cole sounds like he’d be very much at home on one of those West Coast jazz records from the ’50s, strumming an acoustic guitar and crooning bloody Valentines alongside Chet Baker’s muted trumpet. Other tunes, especially the swaying, syncopated “Man Enough,” suggest the Brazilian pop-jazz collaborations of Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto.

Cole also dropped references to his other key influences throughout the evening – quoting Dylan in “Long Way Down,” the Byrds in “Weeping Wine” and the Velvet Underground’s third, most subdued album everywhere else.

Even at his most acidic – and many of his lyrics deal with the down side of a love affair – Cole’s a seducer rather than an agitator. That’s why the soulful leaps into falsetto on “Patience” were such a welcome change of pace, the beauty of the singer’s voice transcending the self-pity: “She left me empty-handed, she left me empty-hearted.”

Otherwise, Cole was content to glide along, and his four-piece band glided with him. Neil Clark is from the tasteful school of guitar jangle, while drummer Dan McCarroll and bassist Robert Vickers were reliably on the beat, without forcing the issue. Blair Cowan filled in many of the cracks with his multitude of keyboard and accordion textures, and his brooding organ provided a sinister backdrop for “Butterfly.”

The overall mood was one of polite interaction rather than of boundaries being exploded, a 1 1/2 -hour study in the virtues of subtlety, songcraft and clever lyricism.

Even Cole seemed to know what was missing, as he snickered during one of his song introductions: “How about a really, moronic, stupid piece of rock music?”

This from a guy who only last year demonstrated that his songs could rock with the best of them. That side of Cole didn’t show up this time.

Opening were Robert Forster and G.W. McLennan, former members of the late, lamented Australian band the Go-Betweens. Strumming acoustic guitars and harmonizing wonderfully, the duo blended tart melodies with disturbing images on Forster’s “Danger in the Past” and McLennan’s “Easy Come Easy Go.”

Publication: Chicago Tribune

Publication date: 15/12/91