Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Elvis Costello: An appreciation

"Just play for the people who are listening."
~ Elvis Costello, as told to Nick Paumgarten
"Brilliant Mistakes: Elvis Costello's boundless career.
The New Yorker, Nov. 8, 2010 issue

I am an unabashed fan of Elvis Costello and have been for a very, very long time.

The first time I saw Costello perform live, he was still with his old band, The Attractions, and Jimmy Carter was in the waning days of his presidency.  The night was Jan. 16, 1981 and the Costello show was in the Northrop Auditorium on the University of Minnesota campus in Minneapolis.  Tickets cost less than $10, even then big money for a college sophomore attending nearby Macalester.  I was merely enjoying a nice, platonic evening out with a classmate.  Who knew that I would fall for Costello's music?  As it happened, Costello and his long-time keyboardist, Steve Nieve, began the evening playing "Just a Memory."  The 19-song set list included favorites like "Accidents Will Happen," "Radio Radio," and "Alison." The show's encore was "Pump It Up."

Since that snowy winter's evening 29 years ago, I have seen Costello perform live eight other times.  For the record, I've seen Elvis twice in Minneapolis, twice in Seattle, and five times in the Bay Area.  In Art Deco auditoriums (Oakland's Paramount Theatre), in outdoor stadiums (the old Parade Stadium in Minneapolis and at Seattle's Bumbershoot), in the Lindley Meadow of San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.  Solo, with The Attractions, with The Imposters, with The Sugarcubes, with Steve Nieve, with the San Francisco Symphony.  It's always a spectacle, always a great show.  Best of the best was probably the night I saw Costello perform during the "River in Reverse Tour" with Allen Toussaint, the Imposters and the Crescent City Horns on June 20, 2006 at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, Calif.  The set list that night included two long encores and a grand total of 33 songs!

Some musical artists I never grow tired of seeing perform live or listening to their albums.  Elvis Costello is one such musical artist.

Thus, I'm very excited about National Ransom, the ambitious new release by the acclaimed singer/songwriter that Costello is, which hit both iTunes and ~ and let's not forget record stores, too ~ in the United States on Nov. 2. While the album's title isn't necessarily a reflection on last week's nationwide Election Day outcome, it can be said that these new tunes are songs for these bankrupt times.

Elvis Costello / National Ransom
Album illustration ~ 
Tony Millionaire

Last Tuesday, I was very pleasantly surprised to find National Ransom available for mp3 download on at the very affordable ~ and excellent ~ price of $3.99.  Desperate economic times or not, I wasted little time in purchasing the 16-song download of National Ransom, which also included a digital booklet, and by dinner time, I had listened to the entire album twice.  (Since then, I've listened to National Ransom in its entirety two more times.)  Now, is selling the download for $7.99.  Meanwhile, iTunes is offering National Ransom for $9.99 and has sweetened the deal by adding an additional track ("I Hope") that's not on the download.

On National Ransom, Costello continues his association with the bluegrass and American roots-influenced Sugarcanes, whom he worked with on his 2009 release, Secret, Profane and Sugarcane.  Costello and the Sugarcanes recorded National Ransom in only 11 days, shuttling between Los Angeles and Nashville, and the album crosses many music genres and borders, including:  rock ("National Ransom"), jazz (Jimmie Standing in the Rain"), country ("That's Not a Part of Him You're Leaving"), bluegrass ("I Lost You"), blues ("My Lovely Jezebel") and American roots ("Bullets for the New-Born King").  There's even room for a ballad ("You Hung the Moon"), too.  T Bone Burnett, who previously worked with Costello on his under-appreciated 1986 album, King of America, produced National Ransom, and guest artists pop up throughout the album, including:  country singer Vince Gill, legendary rock pianist Leon Russell and the esteemed session guitarist Buddy Miller.

Far and above, Costello remains a truly brilliant lyricist and arranger, and his liner notes on the digital booklet accompanying National Ransom detail the period and setting that bore influence on him in each of the album's tunes, such as: 1929 to the Present Day to describe the album's title cut, "National Ransom."  On another tune, "One Bell Ringing," it's The London Underground, 22nd of July 2005.

Costello gave up on the idea of playing arduous tours in big halls long ago in favor of smaller tours in more intimate surroundings.  It's given him the flexibility to perform with his rock-n-roll ensemble, The Imposters, one night; engage in country and bluegrass with the Sugarcubes the next night, even perform an occasional gig with a symphony orchestra.  At this stage of his career, the ability to reinvent and reinterpret his vast catalog of material is what has enabled Costello to remain fresh and vibrant.  One of my favorite Costello experiences was seeing him perform a very lively and brassy Henry Mancini-esque arrangement of "Watching the Detectives" with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in 2006.  It was hot and did it swing!

While devoting much of October to a musical residency in the Bay Area, Costello played the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park ~ his set list included several tunes from National Ransom ~ as well as some San Francisco club benefits with his long-time friend Nick Lowe at the Great American Music Hall.  Then, he performed a few weeks later for Neil Young's annual Bridge School Benefit in Mountain View, Calif.

Last week, Costello shifted coasts and made the rounds of late-night, New York City talk shows, including: Late Show with David Letterman on CBS, The Colbert Report on Comedy Central, and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon on NBC.  Also, Costello and the Sugarcanes played a show at The Greene Space in New York City, sponsored by public radio station WNYC, and he guested last weekend on NPR's Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me in the "Not My Job" segment.  There, he correctly guessed two of three questions about another Elvis ~ no not that Elvis ~ the Canadian Olympic figure skater Elvis Stojko.  It's worth a listen because Costello came off as quite the witty conversationalist.

Finally, the always articulate and often outspoken Costello (he's also host of the Sundance Channel's Spectacle: Elvis Costello with ... ) was the subject of an extensive profile written by Nick Paumgarten in the Nov. 8 issue of The New Yorker, "Brilliant Mistakes: Elvis Costello's boundless career," that is as revealing an article about Costello that I've ever read.

So, in making the rounds of the media to promote National Ransom, Costello assumed the role that Joni Mitchell lyrically described in her 1973 song, "Free Man in Paris" as: "stoking the star maker machinery behind the popular song."  That's okay with me because it's always entertaining when Costello pops up all dapper and properly-attired on TV, whether performing solo or with the Sugarcubes, or even surprising us with a lovely duet of the Everly Brothers ballad, "All I Have to Do is Dream" with Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report.

Elvis Costello just plays for the people who are listening.  I'm listening.

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