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Elvis Costello Still Knows How to Piss People Off

Updated: Feb 13

Okay, maybe not piss off exactly.


It takes an artist of a certain stature and temperament to make 2,300 fans wait through two-plus hours of lovely but “not what we were here for” songs before throwing down even a smattering of the stuff that put him in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

But it also takes an artist with a certain passion and generosity to make you realize that maybe you should calm the fuck down and listen to some good stuff you haven't heard or don't remember before mainlining the soundtrack of your late teens.

Elvis pulled off an interesting trick at the Ryman Auditorium Monday night. He did a show that at first seemed to drag too long - the 29-song set included two Cold War-era novelty songs and a "little tango" he "picked up on a trip to Finland" - then somehow left us wanting more.

Music bios are notorious for grandiose bullshit. But when Costello's tells us that his first three albums - 1977's "My Aim is True," 1978's "This Year's Model" and 1979's "Armed Forces" - "helped define the New Wave genre," it's not puffery.

Elvis dressed up the anger of punk rock with a retro Buddy Holly look, deceptively well-crafted songs, and a tight band. And he, along with Talking Heads, the Clash, the Police, Blondie, the B52s, and others, created a new category of music. I don't know who the really cool kids are listening to right now, but they were listening to Elvis Costello and the Attractions in 1978.

(Full Disclosure: I was mostly still slamming Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull tapes into the glove-box-mounted 8-track of my 1973 Mazda RX-4 in 1978, though I do remember being in the "that was awesome" camp rather than the "did you see that weird group" camp when the B-52s appeared on SNL in the middle of my senior year.)

But after several years of riding high atop the new mainstream, Elvis showed his true colors by spending the creative capital he'd earned to follow his muse rather than chase more hits. He produced wide variety of albums that revealed, among other things, a deep love for the beautifully crafted popular song. I can't say I liked or listened to all of them. But "For the Stars," his collaboration with Swedish mezzo soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, is a beautiful album I still enjoy.

We probably should have seen it coming with "Allison," a sweet love song on an allegedly punk rock debut album. And we definitely should have seen it coming with "Almost Blue," a torch song he wrote in 1981 that sounds like it was penned for Frank Sinatra in 1941.

Bob Dylan hit the nail on the head in his enigmatic "Philosophy of Modern Song," which takes on Costello's high-speed early hit, "Pump It Up." That song, Dylan wrote, gave Costello "the license" to be true to his "gigantic musical soul."

"He (Costello) went all over the place and it was hard for an audience to get a fix on him," Dylan wrote. "From here he went on to play chamber music, write songs with Burt Bacharach, do country records, cover records, soul records, ballet and orchestral music. When you are writing songs with Burt Bacharach, you obviously don't give a fuck what people think."

That was Monday's Ryman show in a nutshell. Costello, perhaps inspired by the historic venue, played the songs he wanted to hear. As lovely as they were, I saw a few people leaving about 12 songs in. Others were lingering longer than normal in the lobby during bathroom or cocktail breaks, waiting - I guessed - for something they recognized.

He teased us with a jammy, ska version of "Watching the Detectives," as well as a sort of jazz combo take on "Clubland," with him leading on acoustic guitar. But it was hard not to feel disappointed more than once when, hoping for the familiar - the explosive drum attack on "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace Love and Understanding" maybe - he played something I didn't know.

But he sang with passion, like a singer who wanted you to feel what he was feeling.

At one point Costello noted that he has two teenage sons, and he doesn't know what to say to them about the state of the world. He mused about turning to great thinkers like Plato, Socrates, Aristotle .... and blues and jazz legend Mose Allison. Then he sang Allison's "Everybody's Cryin' Mercy," which was both beautiful and on point.

"I can't believe the things I'm seeing

I wonder 'bout some things I've heard

Everybody's crying mercy

When they don't know the meaning of the word

A bad enough situation

It's sure enough getting worse

Everybody's crying justice

Just as long as it's business first."

A highlight was a three-song guest appearance by Larkin Poe, a sister act that is Rebecca and Megan Lovell. They sang two songs with Costello, then stepped back and let Megan take the lead vocal on "Burn the Paper Down to Ash."

The Imposters, as Elvis has called his band for years now, was solid, anchored by guest guitar player Charlie Sexton and original Attractions keyboardist Steve Nieve. A guest horn section was added for the Ryman show, including trumpet player and arranger Michael Leonhart, saxophonist Donny McCaslin and trombonist and Nashville resident Raymond Mason.

Most of the crowd stuck it out to the end, and we were rewarded with an achingly slow and emotional version of "Almost Blue," followed by a muscular combination of early rockers, "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down," "High Fidelity," and "Pump it Up." Then came one more downshift "Allison," which provided a nice Ryman moment as he stepped back from the microphone and let as all sing the last line: "My aim is true ..."

The show ended with a punch on "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace Love and Understanding."

Costello threw in a nice Ryman touch several times. After some acoustic songs he turned his guitar over and showed the audience the back of the body, a nod to the great Jimmie Rodgers - the "Father of Country Music" - who had the word "Thanks" on the back of his custom Martin guitar, which he would show to the audience.

Some links:

Here is a link to the Nashville Scene review of Monday's show.

Costello's father was a singer in a jazz big band in the 1950s and 60s London. Watch this video if you want to smile at a guy who somehow predicted both his son and Austin Powers.

Here is an interview I did with Costello for the Chicago Tribune in 2015, after the release of his memoir, "Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink."

Here is a link to Elvis famous first appearance on Saturday Night Live, which he stopped the song he agreed to play and launched into the newer "Radio, Radio." He was banned from SNL for several years.


1 Comment

Hey John. Just wanted to let you know I’m diggin’ these blog posts. I’ve seen Elvis many times, starting way back in the day in Boston. At NOLA JazzFest with David Hidalgo, with Allen Toussaint. Thanks for the reminder about his astonishingly wide range. If you haven’t watched the HBO series Treme, I highly recommend it. Elvis makes an appearance there as well in an unforgettable episode with Kermit Ruffins. My friend Tom Piazza was in the writer’s room for that show, and Elivis has endorsed Tom’s most recent novel The Auburn Conference. I also saw Larkin Poe last year at JazzFest—they were great. Anyway, safe travels and keep ‘em coming. I love your writing. E

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