Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Elvis Costello: A master of high fidelity and storytelling, too

Elvis Costello / Charming crowds with his music and storytelling.

Elvis Costello knows how to charm the pants off an audience. He's done it successfully for the past 40 years as one of his generation's greatest songwriters. Now, with a simple wink, a friendly smile, or just the right choice of words and upbeat tone of voice, the bespectacled and iconic English musician who was once described by a critic as a "pop encyclopedia," is delighting crowds with his good-natured manner and geniality of conversation. He's become a master of the craft of storytelling.

Last Thursday evening's City Arts & Lectures event at the Nourse in San Francisco provided Costello with a forum for talking at length about his new memoir -- 'Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink' -- that (at a hefty but very readable 670 pages) shows Costello to be an intelligent, thoughtful, witty and lyrical writer.

In conversation with Dan Stone, editor-in-chief of Radio Silence, Costello showed why he's a wonderful conversationalist and gifted storyteller. Costello stood and read several passages from his memoir that recalled a mostly happy childhood growing up in a musical family in Liverpool, England, and the special relationship he shared with his father, Ross MacManus, who was a professional singer in a popular dance band. The younger MacManus recalled with clarity watching his father play afternoon dance gigs at the Hammersmith Palais in the 1961. By the end of the decade, Costello had gone into the family business, following in both his father's and grandfather's footsteps, and he took the popular music world by storm by the age of 24, replete with his black-framed Buddy Holly glasses.

Over the course of about 80 minutes, there were many funny and good-natured reminisces about Costello's coming of age, including: one of his first jobs as a data-entry clerk for cosmetics giant Elizabeth Arden; the influence of the Beatles on both his and his father's musical careers; coming to play San Francisco for the first time in his early twenties back in the 1970s; and his infamous TV appearance on Saturday Night Live. Costello punctuated his fluid storytelling by sharing many candid family photos that were projected overhead on a giant movie screen for the audience to delight in.

While 'Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink' doesn't adhere to a linear chronology, what I have read thus far has been a fun and enjoyable read, and each chapter presents colorful highlights in Costello's remarkable life. The New York Times called 'Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink' "some of the best writing -- funny, strange, spiteful, anguished -- we've ever had from an important musician."

Throughout last Thursday's conversation and later, during a Question and Answer period with the house lights turned up, we learned why Costello, 61, is truly a music fan and delights in championing the works of other musicians such as country star George Jones, jazz pianist Allen Toussaint, pop composer Burt Bacharach, rock guitarist and producer T Bone Burnett, English singer/songwriter Nick Lowe, former Beatles icon Paul McCartney, and hip hop/neo soul band The Roots, to name just a few whom Costello has collaborated with over the years.

But wait, the best part of the night was yet to come. Without any prompting, Costello asked the audience: "Hey, you wanna hear a song?" The sold-out audience at the Nourse responded by amping up their already enthusiastic applause. Before the cheering could fade, an acoustic Gibson guitar was brought out and handed to Costello to play and, quickly, a stool, microphone and music stand were in place for "the show" to go on.

Thus, Elvis began an impromptu "mini concert" by performing a very meaningful and moving -- and slowed-down -- version of "Every Day I Write the Book" from 1983's Punch the Clock, followed by "I Hear a Melody," originally recorded in 1977 for his debut album My Aim is True. Finally, a medley of "Radio Sweetheart/What Jackie Wilson Said," the former penned by Costello and the latter composed by Van Morrison, brought the crowd to its feet. The night was complete.

Photo images: Courtesy of 'Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink', 2015.

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