Lloyd Cole had one of his better years in 2009. A world tour took him to Australia, where the turnout at shows exceeded the promoters’ expectations. Cole’s “Folksinger” CD, sold only through his Web site and at concert venues, sold 5,000 copies, a very good number for an independent artist.

But just when Cole has seemingly found a successful niche, he’s decided to mix things up. When he performs Tuesday at Club Cafe, South Side, he’s forgoing the solo act in favor of a band format.

“I don’t want to become stagnant,” he says, noting the addition of multi-instrumentalists Matt Cullen and Mark Schwaber as the Small Ensemble.

As good as last year was, Cole sensed his shows were becoming a bit too slick. An ad-lib he’d made a few years ago became a story, then a recurring staple during live performances. Other anecdotes also became part of most shows.

“It gets to the point where the show is 75 percent scripted,” Cole says, “which is kind of like a stand-up comedian’s show. It’s just being on the stage on my own; there’s only so much ad-libbing that you should do. I just felt like I wanted to try and do something different.”

While Cole calls his new ensemble a “baby bluegrass band” because of the use of banjo, mandolin and steel string guitar, it’s likely his songs will still convey an emotional impact. From his tenure with his band the Rattlesnakes in the early 1980s, through an eclectic solo career, Cole’s music, like Leonard Cohen’s, connects with listeners in an intensely personal manner.

Last year, Cole released “Cleaning Out the Ashtrays,” a collection of B-sides and rarities from 1989 to 2006. He admits undertaking such a project was a bit daunting.

“What would happen if you look at 59 songs and realized you didn’t like very many of them and they were disappointing?” Cole says. “But once you commit to something, you’ve got to do it, and I felt like I got a get-out-of-jail-free card. There’s only two tracks on the thing I’m embarrassed by, and there’s a lot of stuff I look back on very fondly.”

Cole’s success last year came during a period when many musicians struggled. He seems a bit surprised (and grateful) that he’s been able do this without resorting to licensing his music to other media.

“If Disney calls and says we love your music, we want to make a musical around it, I can’t say no,” Cole says, noting his children are of college age. “I just kind of hope they don’t ask.”

Cole understands why some artists have come to this, especially since other revenue streams have dried up. But he can’t fathom why The Who’s music is omnipresent on television, or why Yoko Ono felt it was OK to license “Revolution” to Nike.

Cole is happy he doesn’t have to go that route, that he gets paid for performing, and that he’s maintained a certain dignity without having to resort to another career.

“I think we have 25 years of playing music without a day job,” he says, laughing. “We’re doing all right.”

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Publication date: 20/01/10