If I’m not careful, I’ll run out of adjectives to praise artists well before this trip is over.
But, last night’s Elvis Costello show was simply amazing. Pretty much everything that I could have hoped for, and a bit more.
This was another part of the “Meltdown Festival” at the Southbank Center and it was billed at Elvis Costello – Acoustic. Before the show I started talking with the lady seated beside me and found out that she was about as obsessive about concerts as I am. Turns out she’s lived in London all her life and amongst the bands she’d seen…The Beatles at the Rainbow Theatre and the Odeon. The Stones at the Palladium and in the very hall we were in she saw one of Jimi Hendrix’ first shows in the UK. She said that he nearly tore the roof off. I wish we’d have had more time to chat, but the show started with Cami Thompson. She was passable in the “angry woman solo artist mode”…one of her songs even seemed to be called “screw you”. It wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t memorable either. The highlight of her set was a cover of a somewhat obscure Beatles B-Side …which in an odd sort of way underscored her lack of uniqueness. Over in a half an hour and likely I’ll never hear her again.
After a set change, Elvis bounced on the stage and tore into his first song “45”, an ode to the singles from my (our) youth. This gave way to another newish song and then into “Veronica” a song about his grandmother which he dedicated to his dad (who was in attendance this Fathers Day).
It was terrific to hear the music performed so basic, just guitar and voice and really have a chance to focus on this talent for lyrics, and not just melody.
Even songs that I’m not a huge fan of were better stripped down this way. But there were very few songs that I could count in that number as the set seemed to be a fine balance of new material, he played three new songs and classics. He introduced “Everyday I Write the Book” as a song he’d fallen out of love with, but then Ron Sexsmith has shown him how to play it correctly.
“Good Year for the Roses” stood out mid set, as did a new song about a cowboy singer standing on a train platform in Lanashire (called “Jimmie Standing in the Rain” according to one review I read). He said the new album was just finished this week, then commented how he could still get away with calling them “albums”. No trace of the angry young man of the 70’s, he was a congenial host and quite chatty about nearly every song.
He swapped to an electric and used some loops to accompany himself into a biting version of “Watching the Detectives” that was worthy of someone like Lou Reed. Then, swapped back to acoustic for “Radio Sweetheart” which lead into a few sing-along verses with the crowd of “Jackie Wilson…” by Van Morrison. Absolutely brilliant stuff!
He closed the main set with “God’ Comic” and “Allison”….just about a perfect set for both casual and committed fans. The encores started with Sugarcane and a story about touring with Bob Dylan and playing Bloomington, Illinois and Indiana on consecutive nights.
After another newer song (“My Three Sons”), Richard Thompson bounded on stage to join him. The first song I think was called “nothing at the end of the rainbow”, the second a terrific version of “Shipbuilding”. Thompson’s fluid fretwork meshing itself wonderfully in and around Costello’s voice and guitar. Something that I’d noticed the day before was just what a great accompanist Richard Thompson is, he has that wonderful skill of dropping notes into the right spaces of a song and not overplaying or letting flash take over for style. They left arm in arm, but the evening wasn’t quite done yet.
After a short time Elvis popped back out and played a jazzy version of “All or Nothing at All”…he’s come a long way from the late 70’s Elvis of “Radio, Radio” and “I’m not Angry” to doing jazz standards…but, it’s a progression that seems to suit him and make perfect sense when you look back at things he was doing fairly early in his career like “My Funny Valentine”. Much like Joe Jackson he, he played the angry role in a certain time and place, but never allowed it to straightjacket him from musical growth.
Next there was one more new song, Likely called “One Lonely Bird’, an indictment of torture of an unnamed prisoner wrapped into a fine melody. Strong stuff lyrically.
Ending on a more familiar note, Richard Thompson came back on stage and they tore into a fierce version of “What’s so Funny about Peace, Love and Understanding”.
A really wonderful show and if he ever tours solo like this again, I’d be thrilled to see him in this format.