It’s common for the fame of the song to equal the fame of the artist, and Elvis Costello came out with a handful of hits in the 80s that have made their way into the American consciousness. “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace Love and Understanding” is one of the great rock anthems of the early 80s: a wanting to be more caring, but feeling burned and raw from life’s disappointments, and is as least as famous as the artist himself. He’s always been a broad reaching artist; early tracks of his like “Shipbuilding” and “Almost Blue” straddle the edge of jazz, but he’s best known for his angsty, sometimes political rock and roll from the 80s and early 90s.
He’s evolved as an artist since then, releasing jazz and country albums containing some truly excellent material, and more or less leaving his rock days behind. I imagine it must be a frustrating blessing to be so beloved as an artist for such a small subsection of a vast and eclectic catalogue; shows sell out but the audience wants the same five or six songs, when there are fifty newer songs that will never receive the same attention. It’s like the inverse to “adultolescence”, where instead of the artist’s refusal to grow, everyone else is attached to what he did at age 25. I’m guilty of this, and while I can get behind his new material, and his move towards a Merle Haggard musical style – a grandiose goal, and one he can pull off – I miss the angry rock star who I grew up listening to.
The stage was set up with one of those big porch style chairs, painted blue, as well as a baby grand piano and about a dozen guitars. Additionally, there was a gigantic prop television behind Costello, made to look like one of the old CRT sets from the sixties, and it showed his old music videos as well as old photographs of him and his family. There was an incredible video showed before the encore: Costello’s father, from the sixties or so, singing “If I Had a Hammer” with a band of drummers, all clad in tuxes. It had its own impressive kitsch value and was part of a running theme throughout the show, wherein Costello talked extensively about his musical family. When he sat down at the piano, he said “I have to take care of this piano, I borrowed it from my wife” — and the crowd cheered in acknowledgement of the gift from his wife, jazz musician Diana Krall. Was this a goodbye tour? Was it a retrospective? Isn’t every tour a retrospective when you’ve been releasing music for this long? I think this is a curse of having made music for so long – how do you keep reinventing your show?
For me, the Gen X-er raised on a musical diet heavy on hard rock, the show was a little bit of a curve ball, and I half hoped (in vain) that the giant television would be removed to reveal a hidden drumset, but Costello delivered an acoustic set, and for most of the show he was alone on the stage with his instruments. This was particularly powerful, because he resonates as an introvert, someone not naturally comfortable with crowds, and this lack of ease is part of his charm; no matter how practiced he is, he’s always comes across a little raw and vulnerable.
He changed his instrument after every song, changing guitars or going over to the piano, changing styles and genres, but a lot of his performance had a jazzy tinge to it. Even when he was veering into country, as with “Walking My Baby Back Home”, he used a lot of open jazz chords in his arrangement. Some of his arrangements were a little more traditional; he opened playing a jangly guitar accompanying “Complicated Shadows” and then “Angels Want to Wear My Red Shoes.” He prefaced a lot of the songs with stories; before playing “Watching the Detectives”, he talked about how he was influenced by Film Noir, staying up late and yearning for the actress, and thinking all women looked like her. He told stories about his grandparents and his kids, and his father’s career as an entertainer. For a few of his country songs, a mandolin and a slide guitar player came out to accompany him, and it was, actually, beautiful.
However, at these concerts where aging rockers perform, I notice that old rock-and-roll seems to have been stripped of its indignation politics. In addition to Elvis Costello, I’ve seen Prince, Springsteen, Billy Joel, and Elton John in the past year, and not one of them made a political comment. Elton John, not commenting on gay marriage? Springsteen, not commenting on the disappearance of the middle class? Rock and roll seems anemic lately, and from the man who penned “Oliver’s Army” and “Shipbuilding”, I expected some nod to the American clusterfuck, some bit of boiling blood and indignation; it’s possible he’s outgrown this, and I can embrace his new identity, with some resentment for his complacency. He may not be a rock and roller these days, and he can take you on a beautiful musical journey, but you’re definitely getting a more mellow, older, Elvis than you might have some years ago. His musical genius has shifted its focus – it’s still there, but mellower, and beautiful, rather than irate and driving.
- Complicated Shadows
- (The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes
- I Hope You’re Happy Now*
- Accidents Will Happen*
- Ascension Day
- Church Underground
- Radio Soul
- Motel Matches*
- A Matter of Time
- Shipbuilding *
- When I Write the Book / Everyday I Write the Book
- Walkin’ My Baby Back Home
- Ghost Train
- Town Cryer*
- Watching the Detectives*
- It’s Not My Time To Go (cover)
- Pads, Paws, and Claws
- Love Field*
- Blame it on Cain
- That’s Not the Part of Him You’re Leaving
- Down on the Bottom (cover)