Thursday, August 6, 2015

The 6 Times That I've Seen Elvis Costello

Tonight, I am seeing my seventh show by one of my musical heroes, Elvis Costello, and it’s at the same venue that I saw my first concert of his – Walnut Creek Amphitheatre in Raleigh, N.C. 

But this time is different as he’s not the headliner - Steely Dan is.

That’s right, a billing that would’ve never gone down before back in either band's heyday is a thing now: Costello with the Imposters, which is basically his classic band the Attractions, but with bassist Bruce Thomas replaced with Davey Faragher (Cracker, John Hiatt), paired with the ‘70s jazz pop fusion duo of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen for a summer jaunt through the states which for some reason is dubbed the “Rockabye Gollie Angel” tour.

This will be my first Steely Dan show. I have liked a few songs of theirs throughout the years but have mostly been extremely indifferent to their output. I believe that I am not alone in being a Costello fan who was a bit miffed at first hearing about this tour, but I am determined to give “The Dan” or “The Dan of Steel” as I heard Elvis called them at one of their recent shows a chance. In the meantime, I wanted to take a look back at the six Costello shows I’ve seen over the last 20 years. So Sherman, set the Wayback Machine to 1994:

Hardee’s Walnut Creek Amphitheatre, Raleigh, NC June 18, 1994:

Most folks have an artist or band that they were a casual fan of but then saw them live and become a hardcore fan. This show was that for me. I had his first several records on vinyl, and a “best of” on CD, but this show, supporting his excellent album Brutal Youth (released in early '94) really made me into one of those rabid fanatics who must own every single note available.  

Brutal Youth was a welcome return to rock after a foray into classical music with The Brodsky String Quartet (“The Juliet Letters”) and a return to his old look after what folks would refer to as “the beard years.” Many fans thought of Brutal Youth as This Year’s Model ’94 – an updated version of Costello and the Attractions’ classic 1978 album – and it certainly felt that way when he opened the show with “No Action,” the first cut from that record.

Costello played a healthy helping of the new album – 11 songs worth – and they worked well surrounded by his Attractions hits. “13 Steps Lead Down,” the first single off of “Brutal Youth” seemed like it was born to be sandwiched between “You Belong To Me” and “Radio Radio.” “13 Steps” was also significant to my friends and I because we were in the 13th row - I remember that making the chorus sing-a-long all the more powerful. 

One of the many highlights of the concert was when Costello segued his standard “Alison” dramatically into two different songs by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, “The Tracks of My Tears” and “The Tears of a Clown” – this is something he’s done a lot over the years, but it was the first time I’d heard it and it was glorious. 

So glad I got to see at least one show with the full original Attractions line-up (they broke up in 1996, or more accurately – Thomas left then).

The real icing on the cake is that I met the man after show. Somehow I had scored a backstage pass and was able to chat with him for a few minutes about Johnny Cash and Sonic Youth. He signed my ticket, which I now have framed (with the backstage pass and a picture from the N & O's review) on my office wall:

Oh yeah, the opening band was Crash Test Dummies – remember their 1993 hit “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm”? That’s the only song of theirs that I remember from their set.

Wolf Trap, Vienna VA 6/23/99

It was five years between Costello shows because he didn’t return to North Carolina for over a decade so I drove with a friend up to Wolf Trap in Vienna, Virginia to catch one of the man’s shows on what was called the “Lonely World Tour.” Costello shared equal billing with his long-time keyboardist Steve Nieve, and the duo played a lengthy set - 35 songs – touching on many favorites but mostly highlighting Costello’s 1989 Painted From Memory collaboration with Burt Bacharach. Costello also covered Bacharach’s “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” which he had performed with him in the Austin Powers sequel “The Spy Who Shagged Me,” which was out that summer.

The most memorable moment had to be when Costello was playing the show’s final song, “Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4” from his often overlooked 1991 album Mighty Like a Rose (from the beard years). Costello would end each show with this song, singing it without his microphone, with Nieve playing an un-amplified piano. We sat in silence listening to Costello’s voice impressively filling the amphitheatre on its own until a helicopter flew over and drowned him out briefly. Costello shrugged and we all laughed at this instance of bad timing. It left and he finished the song and the show. It was definitely worth the trip.

Koka Booth Amphitheatre, Cary 9/13/07

This show also consisted of Costello and Nieve, but this time backed by the North Carolina Symphony conducted by Alan Broadbent. They opened with a suite off of Il Sogno, his latest classical release, also worked in one of his songs off of “The Juliet Letters,” but the rest of the show was mostly Costello crowd pleasers given the added orchestral sweep.

I remember it being a beautiful evening, with the music sweetly yet powerfully filling the park. Among his hits, and a few songs from his 2004 album “The Delivery Man,” Costello mixed in a bit of John Lennon’s “I Don’t’ Want To Be a Soldier” to “The River in Reverse” from his 2006 collaboration with Allen Toussaint, again added the Smokey Robinson quotes to the end of “Alison,” and finished up with the “Couldn’t Call It Unexpected No. 4” sans mike show stopper. There was no helicopter interruption this time, thankfully.

Koka Booth Amphitheatre, Cary 6/14/09

Another show at Koka Booth but this was quite different as Costello was backed by his new acoustic band, The Sugarcanes, consisting of Jim Lauderdale, Jerry Douglas, Mike Compton, Stuart Duncan, Dennis Crouch, and Jeff Taylor. They set the tone for the evening perfectly by opening with a cover of Junior Walker’s “Mystery Train,” which was also famously covered by the other Elvis. They then knocked out a rollicking set of tracks from the just released Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, deep cuts like “Our Little Angel,” and “Blame in on Cain, and a number of well received covers like “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down,” “Friend of the Devil,” and oddly “Femme Fatale.”

This time “Alison” segued into “He’ll Have to Go,” a song by Joe and Audrey Allison (how apt) that Costello covered on his first attempt at country music, Almost Blue back in ’81. The last song of the show was “Five Small Words” which wouldn’t be released until his 2010 album National Ransom, also featuring the Sugarcanes. These forays into country/bluegrass have some wonderful moments, but they're not what I usually reach for when I want to hear primo Costello - something the next few shows on this list delivered in spades.

Belk Theater at Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, Charlotte 7/16/11 & DPAC, Durham 4/29/12

These last 2 shows, in which Costello was backed by The Imposters, were on what was also dubbed “The Revolver Tour: The Return of the Spectacular Spinning Songbook,” which resurrected a gimmick Costello used on a mid ‘80s tour: a large game show style wheel containing the titles of 40 songs was featured on stage. Fans were brought on stage to spin the wheel, and could dance in a go-go cage, or lounge at the “society bar” stage.

From my write-up of the Charlotte show: “Elvis cheated a few times when dealing with the towering game show device (‘If I can't cheat in Charlotte, where can I cheat?’ he quipped) because the huge wheel kept landing on previous selections and maybe one obscurity too many - ‘Turpentine’ for instance got passed up.”

I also tweeted at the time that it was “3 hours of power ditties, ballads, covers, and a lot of guitar shredding.” Highlights included covers of The Who’s “Substitute,” Bob Dylan’s “This Wheel’s on Fire,” and the Rolling Stones’ “Out of Time.” “Alison” again segued into “The Tracks of My Tears” but also included snatches of Jimi Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary,” and E.Y. Harburg & Harold Arlen’s “Over The Rainbow.”

The Durham show at DPAC was more of the same but in the best possible way. It was originally scheduled for September of 2011 but was postponed until the following April because Costello’s father, Ross MacManus was sick and dying (he passed away in November 2011).

The show was again a rousing mix of Costello favorites and covers, including Johnny Cash’s “Cry! Cry! Cry!,” and a really rocking take on The Beatles’ “Please Please Me” which concluded the concert.

I’ll have to remember that the last few times I saw Costello were these extensive three hour marathons tonight when I’m seeing him as an opener doing roughly an hour set made up of less than 15 songs. However, I bet he’ll make the most of his time on Steely Dan’s stage. Like I said before, I fully plan to give the headliners a chance, although it’s looking a lot like rain this evening and we have lawn seats, so we'll see how that goes.

More later...

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