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Elvis Costello Solo, The Capitol Theatre, Port Chester, NY, 11-12-13

Declan meets Elvis
























Declan MacManus brought his ghosts out to play at The Capitol Theatre, a particularly fine venue to do so. They were mostly friendly ghosts, however. This gorgeous 1920s vaudeville theatre was the perfect place for Declan to step out from behind from his Elvis Costello persona and take a walk down memory lane. It’s no accident (though accidents will happen) that his recently released album with The Roots is titled Wise Up Ghost, a seeming admonition to himself and others.

After so many collaborations through so many genres (with the varied likes of Burt Bacharach, Paul McCartney,George Jones, and Allen Toussaint) and frequent backing by The Attractions and The Imposters, he was very much solo this evening. He went so far as to jokingly proclaim to the audience, “Now I’d like to introduce a very special guest–ME!” Was it Elvis introducing Declan, or the other way around?
If the audience had come expecting to hear all the radio hits, they were in for a big surprise. The genius singer-songwriter dug way down deep for most of the long set, drawing from his remarkably diverse catalog. He went all the way back to My Aim is True for “Sneaky Feelings,” to This Year’s Model for “Little Triggers,” and to Armed Forces for “Party Girl.” It was clear from the get-go that he was featuring older, relatively obscure songs, as he opened with “King Horse” from Get Happy!! It was a tremendous, lively opener that showed him to be in fine form. An array of acoustic and electric guitars, as well as an electric piano, were all on hand, and he switched out after every song. He followed up with “Either Side of the Same Town” off of The Delivery Man, one of his many albums that proved that he has never been afraid to delve into material that was not destined to become a collection of airplay standards.
The standards were not entirely forgotten, though, as he did include songs such as “Crimes of Paris,” “Starting to Come to Me,” and “Beyond Belief.” That last song was one of the highlights of the evening for me, with incredible clarity of voice and great filigree picking. He also did “Watching the Detectives,” one of the most interesting interpretations he did all evening. With a foot-pedaled set-up, he looped his guitar so that he could, essentially, play with himself. Layers of reverb and feedback thundered through the theater, and he added a megaphone-amplified siren on top of it all. After this wall of sound moment, he abruptly halted and framed his hands. “Credits roll!,” he said playfully.
“Tonight’s all about love!,” he called out to the crowd after the first few numbers, though he later amended this to add, “But the other side of that is deceit, betrayal, and heartbreak.” So many of his songs have dealt with the pursuit of love, often a bitterly failed pursuit. He is a poet who writes about the human need for connection and how very frequently we fall short.
“I feel like playing all the wicked songs,” he remarked, as he launched into “After the Fall.” With lyrics like “You were sharp and ideal as a bobby pin/ Now your eyes are deserted and quiet/ We both look like those poor shattered mannequins/ Thrown through the window in the riot” I guess he did.
As he started to play “The Delivery Man,” from the wickedly-themed album of the same name, he was unhappy with the guitar sound. He handled it off and asked for a mandolin, to excellent effect. He then commented on the beauty of the theater, and how he loved the old-timey music of its earlier eras. Those songs were full of innuendo, he said, and clever hints about the “nocturnal pastimes” of the people of that time. He then sang a terrific version of the Cab Calloway tune “Walking My Baby Back Home.”

At this point he moved to the keyboard, and sort of broke my heart. All through the evening, he struggled vocally at several points, particularly on the very quiet numbers. His glorious voice was there most of the time, with its pure high notes and luscious vibrato, but at more points than I can count, that voice went flat. HIs first keyboard number was “Almost Blue,” and he was off-key for much of it. It was painful for me, because you can forget the Hallelujah chorus, I know that voice is how the angels sing. The fans seemed forgiving of the vocal breaks for the most part, though. He rebounded a bit by playing “the one that got away, till tonight,” “The Flirting Kind.”

He stepped away from the keyboard and pointed out the lit “On Air” sign on the stage, joking that they were broadcasting all the way to Guatemala. He then had them light up the red “Request” sign on the front of stage and the audience started shouting out requests. I honestly found this a bit gimmicky and disingenuous, because one of the songs he chose to do as a “request” was “Cinco Minutos Con Vos” (which is a great song off Wise Up Ghost, though it’s better on the album with the funky backbeats of the Roots and a fabulous female vocal. Regardless, who among the superfans would request this, given the chance to ask for any of his songs? In addition, I saw from past setlists that he’s done this one every night of the tour). Three-quarters of the audience was yelling for “Alison” anyway, which he did, though it morphed nicely into “In Another Room.” 

That concluded the set, though he didn’t make the crowd wait long for the first encore. He started off with “A Slow Drag for Josephine,” from National Ransom, which was very fun, followed by another standard, “Blue Chair.”

The ghosts hovered closer as he talked about needing memory, not nostalgia, in reference to his late father. At this point he had them turn off the microphones, and he started in with “Dirty Rotten Shame” as a tribute. It was difficult to hear him at first, but then he warmed up and belted out the harsh lyrics, and it was beautiful. Next he shared a long story about his grandfather, who played in bands on transatlantic liners for many years, until the work dried up. He tried to go back to England to play in the movie houses, only to find that talkies had replaced silent films (for which Elvis’ grandmother held Al Jolson personally responsible), and he was reduced to busking on street corners for a living. At that, we were treated to “Jimmie Standing in the Rain,” that finished with an amazing bit of “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?”
Off he went, and again the audience only had to clamor for a few minutes before he popped back on stage. The second encore was perhaps the best part of the whole show, with a monster version of “I Want You,” with more pedal looping and glorious distortion. Finally the crowd was thrilled to hear “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding.” He pulled out all the stops for this one, jumping back to the young, angry Elvis who took Nick Lowe’s measured melody and transformed it into a new wave anthem. He then segued seamlessly into “Tripwire,” only the second song he performed from Wise Up Ghost, before circling back around to a slow, soulful rendition of “Peace, Love, and Understanding.” It worked, oh my, how it worked. He walked off the stage and the house lights quickly came up, despite the people still bellowing for “Oliver’s Army” and “Veronica.” Hey, I wanted to hear “The Other End of the Telescope,” and I didn’t get to hear that either, but you didn’t hear me screaming after the show was obviously over.

I felt that the beginning and end of the show were the strongest points overall. As of this second Capitol Theatre date, he had done nine shows in eleven days, obviously all on his own. I think it was too much, too much of a strain on his voice. He certainly had all the energy, could step into his twenty-year-old persona on the guitar, but his voice did something I never would have expected: it made me cringe at times. In twenty-six days, he will have played nineteen shows in the Northeast. Why the insanely paced tour schedule?  I don’t know, other than this may be a retrospective for him personally, a way to set out all his ghosts in a row. I’ve looked at the setlists for each of the shows so far, and each one is different (with several overlapping numbers).

Despite the vocal issues, the true fans (including myself) still reveled in the evening. Declan/Elvis has never been one to cater to casual fans who only know him from the radio (and we have heard how he feels about the radio), and put together an intimate show for the true believers. The Ghost of Elvis Present appears comfortable with the Ghost of Elvis Past, as they coexist together on the stage.

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