The Rams Head Tavern's January performance calendar gives a pithy description of Lloyd Cole, the British singer/songwriter who made a solo appearance in the plush cabaret. "Lloyd Cole and the Commotions were big in the late '80s," it reads. "One of his big hits was 'Jennifer.'" This seemed to amuse Cole. "Those are both lies," he told us from the stage. The song, he explained, was called "Jennifer She Said." As to the "big in the late '80s" part, well that's open to interpretation. Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, who released a handful of albums in the Reagan era, never blew up like U2 or R.E.M., though they were darlings of the college-radio scene. But where many '80s acts aged poorly (rack any Missing Persons lately?) the Commotions' canonparticularly their debut album, Rattlesnakesremains eminently listenable in the new decade.
The boisterous capacity crowd seemed only too aware of this. They whooped and hollered at the start of each number, familiar with both Commotions songs and those from Cole's string of '90s solo albums. And Cole, his graying hair bunched over his forehead à la fellow Brit Hugh Grant, appeared to enjoy what he termed his "second career as a folk singer."
He opened with "Patience," which he called his "oldest song." It's also his most archetypal, a poignant portrait of a quirky girlfriend and a belly-up relationship. What followed was a good mix of Cole's '80s and '90s material. Many of his post-Commotions songs, stripped of their often excessive string arrangements and syrupy production, achieved new emotional depth. The acoustic retoolings of "Pay for It," "Like Lovers Do," and "My Way to You" were well received. Cole's playing (he alternated between two acoustic guitars) his playing was polished and sprightly. Though he's never been a smooth-bore crooner, his voice achieved an intimate melodiousness. A jaunty, driving rendition of the Commotions gem "Forest Fire"which folks had been screaming forclosed the show on an exhilarating note.
When the lights went up, Cole milled among the fans, talking of his golf game and his two children. And so this is Lloyd Cole in 2000no longer the angst-ridden twentysomething writing about lost weekends in Amsterdam or brooding over problematic women with a bottle and pack of Luckies. He's all grown up. He's comfortable. While continuing to record (a new album will be out this year), he takes on rocky romances from memory, without the urgency of youth. But as the rowdy Rams Head gig demonstrated, Cole can still cause a commotion.