Ask me to name my absolute favorite musician of all time, and I’m likely to say Elvis Costello. It used to be a dead heat between The Who and EC, but as Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey are no longer really doing anything apart from occasionally going on tour and acting surly toward each other, Elvis has easily slunk into first place. There may be times, especially when I go through really vicious Who cycles when it’s all I’ll listen to, when I may say they’re better than EC, but in terms of vitality, endearance, and creativity, Elvis wins every time.
That said, I’m not a fan of his new album, Sugar, Profane & Sugarcane. I like my EC a-rockin’, with some blood and guts to him, not as a country crooner who is trying to cram as much musical genres under his hat as he can. There are a handful of songs on the album that I enjoy, but it hasn’t hit me much in the way as his previous ones have. So when my friend and newly-converted EC fan Steph said she got tickets to go to an EC concert in Wolf Trap, Virginia, and asked me if I would go, I happily said yes, because I know that no matter what album he’s promoting, it’s always going to be a different kind of show.
Let me just say that the Filene Center at Wolf Trap is a beautiful place: set in a national park, it reminded me a lot of the Mann Music Center in Philadelphia, except not quite as Philadelphia-y. As Steph and I walked to find the perfect spot on the lawn, we chatted about what we thought he would play. Having read the set-list beforehand, I had an inkling, but couldn’t recall specifics. I did know that most of the new album would be played (10 of 13 songs, plus a “bonus” track), and the first two songs she wouldn’t recognize (which later turned out to be incorrect, but only because I misremembered the set).
At 8pm, Elvis and the Sugarcanes – Jim Lauderdale on guitar and vocals, Jerry Douglas on dobro and vocals, Mike Compton on mandolin, Stuart Duncan on fiddle and banjo, Dennis Crouch on upright bass, and Jeff Taylor on accordion and low-key whistle – casually strolled onto the stage to much applause and cheering. Elvis, resplendent in a dapper suit and a bright, dark purple hat, doffed his chapeau and casually placed it onto a table next to him. Without saying a word, he dug gamely into Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘My Resistance Is Low’, a song which he covered for George Jones in 1992 but never officially released. Up next came ‘My All-Time Doll’ from the new disc, and Steph turned smugly to me and said, “I know this one! You said I wouldn’t recognize the first two songs!” My apologies, Steph.
Elvis was particularly chatty, and spoke at length after the next song (a cover of Merle Haggard’s ‘Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down’), mentioning his father, Ross MacManus, and the advice he was given before he got into show-business: “First, never look up to a note; always look down.” He paused and noticed the audience’s non-reaction. “Yeah, I have no idea what he meant either,” he deadpanned. “Second, you may be on top of the world one minute, but soon you’ll find yourself just below the bill of the liquor licensee.” New album opener ‘Down Among The Wines & Spirits’ followed, and translated really well into the new setting. Lauderdale, who I found to be something of a distraction on the album with his muted backing vocals, added a whole lot to the songs when performed live, and even the band, who I feared would hold Elvis back and make him seem not as unpredictable, were able to keep up with him admirably.
‘Our Little Angel’ followed, and was the first of many, many songs he would play from King Of America. Elvis was again feeling chatty, and spoke at length about the man who inspired this song. Whether or not he was real is unknown, because the soundboard guy was still trying to decide whether or not he wanted the people on the lawn to be able to hear everything or just Elvis speaking through what sounded like a transistor radio. Eventually, he got the hang of his job, but c’mon. One of many, many surprises came in the way of the Velvet Underground’s ‘Femme Fatale’, the aforementioned bonus track and definitely a favorite of mine: EC transformed it from a lilting, almost menacing song into a spirited romp, joyfully counting off the intro with an “Un, deux, trois!” He brought the mood down a bit with ‘I Felt The Chill’, another new song and a co-write with Loretta Lynn. “We wrote a bunch of songs together: ‘Pardon Me, Madam, My Name Is Eve’” – to which I, and only I, enthusiastically applauded to – “‘Thank God For Jesus’” – which got some well-deserved laughter, and a response of “We haven’t written that one yet” – and this one. She came in with a box labeled ‘Songs’, so I knew she meant business.” He also mentioned Johnny Cash’s house as the writing place of these songs, which dovetailed nicely into the next song, ‘Hidden Shame’, which Elvis had written for Mr. Cash. This was one of the few new upbeat songs on the album, so the addition was very much welcome.
And then we come to the first clunker of the night (to me, at least): ‘The Delivery Man’. I didn’t like it on record, and I don’t like it live, no matter what. So I sort of zoned out at this point and started taking note of the people around me, which says a lot considering my considerable curmudgeonly attitude toward people, and general distaste of large public places: the audience was older, but not to an embarrassing degree; they brought picnic lunches and bottles of wine, though there was no drunken singalongs or anything like that. Everyone was well-behaved, apart from two people in my field of vision who spent a good 10 minutes taking MySpace-esque photos of themselves (at arm’s length, slightly angled upwards) with a Blackberry. I grumbled considerably to Steph, who very helpfully suggested I go over there and offer to take the picture for them, so that way they would be done with the matter. I declined her offer.
With that song concluded, Elvis jumped right into ‘The Butcher’s Boy’, and the first of a handful of songs I was unfamiliar with. However, we were back on steadier ground with the following song, ‘Blame It On Cain’, perhaps the first well-known song of the evening (at least in terms of the general audience-goers). Elvis then turned the heat down a bit with ‘Indoor Fireworks’, song number two from King of America; while that may have been a surprise, it was the next one, ‘Condemned Man’, that really came as a surprise, least of all because it’s an unrecorded and completely newly-written song. Written about a man on death row, I got a particular charge out of the first line, which went along the lines of receiving 10,000 volts, but the man says “Make it 25″. Another surprise, albeit not particularly welcome by me, came in the way of ‘Friend of the Devil’. Now, I’m not a Dead-head – never have been, never will be – and don’t at all like their music. But when Elvis reinterprets their songs, I’m always pleasantly surprised, and this was no exception. (For those counting at home, this was song number three I wasn’t familiar with, much to the delight of Steph, who was worried I would know everything.)
Elvis then introduced the next song, ‘She Handed Me A Mirror’, as from his unrecorded opera about the life of Hans Christian Andersen and his attraction toward Jenny Lind. His lengthy preamble culminated in the punchline of Andersen inquiring why she would never love him; hence, the song title. ‘Everyday I Write The Book’ followed, and was drastically rearranged to feature some beautiful harmonies and melodically restructured sections. I like (not love) the original, so this was a nice way to inject some life into it. Surprise number four came in the form of another unrecorded and newly-written song, ‘Five Small Words’ (“written this morning,” Elvis quipped. “It’s our next hit single.”), though I don’t remember a whole lot about it. Don’t take that to mean that I was bored during it; I love that Elvis introduces new songs to his set, instead of merely playing the hits. It takes a lot of balls to do something like that, so more power to him.
One of my favorite songs on the new album, ‘She Was No Good’, came next, and was followed by ‘Little Palaces’, song number three from King of America. However much I dislike the latter (and I do: it’s not in my top songs on that album) means nothing in the live setting, because it takes on a whole new air. So too did ‘Complicated Shadows’, a song that I prefer in its original Attractions incarnation, and just couldn’t get behind with its C&W reworking. I was still a little indifferent to it, though when performed live, again, it made more sense, and even sounded like a bastard amalgamation between the Attractions’ original and the new version. The set concluded with ‘Brilliant Mistake’, perhaps my second favorite song from King of America; Elvis doffed his cap again, held his guitar up, thanked us all immensely, and walked off the stage, followed by his backing band.
In many bands, that would have been it; hell, the Rolling Stones have played less songs in a set, and Elvis was only up to the 21st song. So when he walked back onstage, a lot of surprised people who were bee-lining for the exit stopped in their tracks and either headed back to their seats, or stayed where they were and watched. A duo of new songs – ‘Red Cotton’ and ‘The Crooked Line’ – introduced the first encore, and it’s the latter that’s my absolute favorite from the new album, though it loses a bit of momentum without Emmylou Harris’s backing vocals. ‘American Without Tears’ (song number five from King of America) came next, and was nearly as beautiful as the studio version, though a bit of freshness was injected into it with a singalong coda. The first encore concluded with ‘(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes’, which got a huge cheer from the audience (because it was probably the second well-known song of the evening, behind only ‘Everyday I Write The Book’), and some more audience participation was encouraged, before the song ended, and Elvis once again thanked us and left the stage.
Certain that that was most definitely that, the audience once again dispersed, though I resolutely stayed where I was, and started shouting song titles to not only be an obnoxious ass, but to also prove that I know more about Elvis than most of the people there. (‘Shatterproof’ was one title I shouted.) Once again, of course, Elvis strode back onstage and introduced the next song with another lengthy preamble, this time about meeting Governor Schwarrzeneggaaaaaaaaahhhhahhh, culminating in the punchline that the actor-turned-political figure will never be able to run for president, but his sons – Dexter and Frank, both American citizens despite Elvis being an Englishman and wife Diana Krall being Canadian – could. ‘Sulphur to Sugarcane’ followed, and was every bit as lascivious and jokey as on record, with Elvis even altering some of the lyrics to mention Wolf Trap.
At some point during the concert, he apologized offhandedly about his voice, which was seeing tremendous wear and tear on the third night in a row of performances, though he attributed the croakiness to inhaling New York air (where he had played the previous night). It was honestly not that noticeable at first, until he would occasionally try to do his patented howl only to sound like a strangulated cat; I found it more comical than anything, especially at one point (I want to say it was during ‘Complicated Shadows’, but I have a feeling it might have been during a slightly more tender song) when Elvis seemingly replicated Howard Dean’s infamous “victory” scream. Everyone around me must have been wondering why the hell I was laughing so hard, but I didn’t feel too much remorse: even Elvis had a big grin on his face afterwards.
Unknown song number four came next, in the form of ‘The Race Is On’ by Don Collins, though it was the next song that Elvis would not have been permitted to leave without performing: ‘Alison’. Steph and I both agreed that, while it’s a decent enough song, we couldn’t figure out why it was so often requested. I suggested that it was because it was a name, and people who are named after the song – whether intentionally or coincidentally – are going to want to hear their name sung. Regardless, Elvis almost seemed to be performing it because he had to, though he added some new twists – snippets of ‘He’ll Have To Go’ and ‘I’ll Make It All Up To You’ – to the end. And that was that. Again.
Except it wasn’t. Once again, people started to leave, determined to get to the parking lot and that Elvis had finally done all he wanted to do in 28 songs. But no, he had much more to say! Once again he came back onstage and played ‘They’ll Never Take Her Love From Me’, the B-side of ‘The People’s Limousine’ and the first recorded collaboration of Elvis and T Bone Burnett, going under the guise of the Coward Brothers. More substantial was ‘(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding?’, definitely a surprise not necessarily in the fact that it was performed, but that it wasn’t as countrified as it could have been, maintaining an air of menace that certainly gave the original a run for its money. With the audience sufficiently satiated, Elvis asked with a gesture if they wanted one more. Well fuck yes we do, Elvis! (The family next to Steph and me, however, weren’t all that thrilled; while the parents stood and watched, their hellspawn threw golf umbrellas into the grass about a dozen feet in front of us like they were spears. In the rare off-chance that someone from that family reads this, don’t you know how expensive a good umbrella is? Also, your kids are douchebags.) Elvis finally concluded his set with ‘The Scarlet Tide’, even throwing in a line about the previous administration wasting money and ruining the country. (Not specifically, of course, but in so many words.) And that was it: Elvis introduced the band once more, thanked the audience again, and the house lights came up.
As Steph and I walked to the car, the grin on her face was more than enough an indication that she had finally seen the concert she had been waiting to see for some time, if not her entire life. It was hard for me to disagree with her sentiments. A million thanks for the early birthday present, Steph.
Photo courtesy of the Washington Post.
Yes, I know that endearance isn’t a word. But it should be, dammit!
4 Comments so far
Leave a comment