Elvis Costello burst upon the rock scene in 1977 as one of the angry young men of the punk/New Wave (r)evolution. His first three albums – My Aim Is True, This Year’s Model and Armed Forces – are classics of great, explosive rock and occasional balladry.
But this is not 1977 and at 64 years of age and with a wife (Diana Krall) and two 11-year-old sons, he is not particularly angry. In fact, during his long career, I’ve watched him progress from full-on rocker to R&B soul man to balladeer. I haven’t kept up with every single album he’s done (30 studio!) but I check in occasionally including listening to the album behind which he’s touring, Look Now.
Frankly, I didn’t find it be breaking any new ground and also thought it was much too ballad-heavy. And so at least on record, it seemed that EC was now much more influenced by his sometime co-songwriter Burt Bacharach and the more mellow side of his other co-songwriter, Paul McCartney.
And so when I got tickets to this show I thought, hmm, well, which Elvis will show up, the balladeer/R&B guy or the rocker? My wife likes EC quite a bit and so, without really checking out any songlists or YouTube or anything we decided to dive right in.
So what was the show like and which Elvis showed up? Well, all of them in a sense because he played 26 songs over the course of about three hours, mixing it up between the old and the new.
First the good news – the band is absolutely crackerjack and they sound fantastic. Tight. He’s touring with two of the guys that were the Attractions and who recorded much of his early work – Steve Nieve on keyboards and one of my favorite drummers of all time, Pete Thomas. Along for the tour is bassist Davey Faragher and two female backup singers whose names, alas, I cannot find anywhere.
The show started off with the triad of “This Year’s Girl,” “Honey Are You Straight or Are You Blind,” and “Clubland.” So it seemed like we were gonna rock all night and keep the ballads and R&B to a minimum.
Alas. The show leaned heavily toward the Look Now sound which Allmusic characterizes by saying it “isn’t rock & roll so much as it’s pop that blends the craft of classic Brill Building tunes of the ’60s with the narrative maturity of classic Broadway musicals and the sort of ballads that were once the purview of classic jazz vocalists.”
Which is great if it’s Sunday morning and you’re reading the New York Times over a cup of coffee but not so great when you’re in an auditorium of people jacked up to hear EC pump it up.
Don’t get me wrong here – to be clear I enjoyed the show. But I liked it when I so much wanted to love it. As mentioned, I haven’t really kept up with him and at one point he played five songs in a row that I neither knew nor was much thrilled about.
And so it’s clear that in this part of career, Elvis has very much fashioned his band as an R&B revue heavy on ballads with the occasional rock tune thrown in. (I would love it to have been exactly the reverse.) He just loves, loves, loves to sing ballads and that’s fine but, meh.
Because the thing is, he proved several times that when he wants to dip into his back catalog and do some of those numbers, he can pull it off and it feels more like Boston’s Orpheum or Paradise (both of which he name-checked) in 1978 and less like Burt Elvis McCartney.
Here he is doing a rendition of “Watching the Detectives.” I was primed for him to play it and had camera ready. But then a couple ran out and I thought, maybe their kid is sick. But no, just a couple of alcoholic assholes who can’t survive a show without making a beer run so they can fuck it up for everybody else. So this starts a little late.
He followed this up with the great “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror.” But we were now halfway through the show and I recognized maybe half the songs. Eventually, he got to “Alison” which he now does in a more soulful fashion with his two leggy backup singers. (Note the old-timey microphones which may or may not be a tribute to his big band dad.)
His last pre-encore tune was “Everyday I Write the Book.” Now that’s a song I really like but weirdly, this tune seemed to get the crowd worked up more than anything prior. So maybe this was EC crowd second shift. (My wife and I got a kick out of the couple in front of us. When they weren’t up dancing – and he had a great ‘bro dance – they were canoodling and at one point the wife tells me he had his hand down her shirt. So they had a real good time.)
The encore went on for nine songs and really, just felt like a continuation of the show. He did a ballad version of “Accidents Will Happen,” then another ballad from the new album then the great “(I Don’t Want to Go to Chelsea.) “Then eventually “Pump it Up.” Then more ballads. You see? That’s not a fucking encore! My wife got it right – play a couple of hot, “up” tunes that we can all dance and freak out to.
This was the last song. I didn’t record it but it’s from another recent show:
Anyway, as mentioned up front, I really, really wanted to love this show and really wanted to write a review about how much I loved it. But the best I can say is that I enjoyed it, sometimes quite a bit and then other times not so much.
But again the band sounded great .And if EC said he was touring again (minus backup singers) and he was going to play his first three albums, I’d go. If I want to hear ballads all night, I’ll go see James Taylor or Josh Groban.
Setlist is here: