You might think a “long term artist” opening his second night at Carnegie Hall by performing the entire first side of his debut album is dabbling in instant nostalgia for the baby boomers and you might be right, unless the six songs in questions, “Welcome To The Working Week”, “Miracle Man”, “No Dancing”, “Blame It On Cain”, “Alison” and “Sneaky Feelings”, were to be followed by 32 other songs. “Since you can’t go out and buy it anymore, I thought I’d play the first side” Pause, “Good evening” Pause “Maybe I’ll play the second side later”. We didn’t get the entire second side of My Aim Is True but it’s the thought that counts!
Elvis Costello’s almost ridiculously impressive nearly three hour solo set at Carnegie Hall Thursday night began near the top and maintained the standard just about ceaselessly. By the time he reached, maybe two hours in, the songs we were taken as medicine so we could enjoy the good stuff, “Come The Meantimes” for one, he had accrued so much good faith with the audience, it no longer sounded like a half-baked mash-up.
There are two caveats here: Costello overused the loop, he is like a rapper with autotune and he can’t resist testing its limitations. But Costello isn’t Tune-Yards and he doesn’t get it quite right. This is especially true on an obstreperous “Watching The Detectives” but the loop (you know, you play a lick and tape it and replay it as back up) never really helped, if it only occasionally harmed the material. The other mistake was waiting till the end of the evening to take to the piano and then choosing “For The Stars” and “Couldn’t Call It Unexpected No. 4”. On Tuesday night he played his ode to his wife and the Madhatters in Manhattan “I’m In The Mood Again” and “Almost Blue”. They won.
But again, when you have already performed just about perfect versions of “Blue Chair”, “Suit Of Lights” and a heart stopping “Toledo” perhaps you have earned the right to screw around with expectations. The night Costello played with Burt Bacharach at Radio City Music Hall, Andy Pettitte was pitching for the Yanks in the playoffs and I chose the latter, which means I missed all those Painted By Numbers songs and it was a real thrill to hear this impassioned take on infidelity.
Impassioned. Costello can’t phone in anything. Songs about love and betrayal is the theme of the evening (or songs fn exile “I haven’t decided” ) Elvis claimed, and with subject matter so ripe for exploitation he always sings them till there is nothing left to sing of them and solo he sings them more.
Last night, Costello, a couple of months into a solo tour which will have him on the road till the Autumn, he built up a set from the building bricks of his past history with his late father jazz singer Ross McManus and his Grandfather, a ship musician. He has been referencing his antecedents all tour long and last night took it one step further, performing “My Three Sons” about his children, four generations. Still, consider it more a reference point, digging deep into his catalog every night, he needed to keep his eyes on landmarks and those are the landmarks; perhaps the pleasure of solo performance is it really really is all about you.
Equally important was a cover of Nat King Cole’s “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home”, obviously tributing his wife Diana Krall, her All for You: A Dedication to the Nat King Cole Trio from 1996 was a coming of age for the NKC fanatic. But really, this was just a somewhat turbocharged version of the set he performed for Helen Bach earlier this year in Boston. A Carnegie Hall debut is something, especially for an ex-pat New Yorker, but the sense of moment didn’t really change things that much.
Though this isn’t the first time I’ve seen Elvis at Carnegie Hall -I was at the George Jones gig Elvis referenced before playing “Stranger In The House”. One of four names he references, Roy Orbison, Burt, and McCartney all get a heads up. I mention it because this is the league Costello considers himself in and I don’t really see it myself. Costello’s career lacks the height of these names or the consistency. As a recording performer he had ten great years and then slipped.
As a live performer,dating back to 1977 I’ve seen him many many times and he has been consistently excellent and as a live performer he can hold his own with any one. The thing is, his trick if you will, is Joe DiMaggio’s trick, he always performs for the person who has never seen him before. You never catch him watching the clock. Great swaths of this performance are intensely beautiful and moving; he tells his story, gulps his water, with only his guitar tech and shouts from the audience to interrupt him, Costello breathes life into a duo of songs, “So Like Candy” and “After The Fall” which were overwritten messes to begin with. He is better on stage than on record, crap stuff on record seemed to come to live and songs he must be seriously sick of like “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes” could’ve been written yesterday. One of his very worse song “The Comedians” is a revelation. Makes you wonder if you underestimated him.
It is a real achievement, performing solo and invitingly and interesting so the audience isn’t dozing, for 165 minutes. The penultimate song of the evening found him strapping on his electric song for the first time all night for the new and excellent “The Last Days Of My Youth”. Perhaps it is, or perhaps he will never grow old.
I was happier because I knew I was happy
a snapshot of big hits and high tides, mostly high tides.
There is just a lot to love
the sound seemed to erupt from every side of the room
still on top
“danceable music for the end of days”
contracts its world in Nashisms
let’s take what we are offered
It’s the music, stupid