I can’t talk today; my voice is completely destroyed. And it’s all Elvis’s fault.
It’s been 30 years since Elvis Costello fired the first salvos in his sonic assault on middle-class sensibility, but if anything, these days he’s firing harder and faster than ever. Age apparently cannot wither him, nor custom stale the infinite variety of hard-hitting rockers he can crank out. Playing at New York City's Nokia Theatre Wednesday night with his working band, the Imposters, Elvis simply tore the joint apart. He’s a goddamn inspiration to all of us who have no intention of aging gracefully.
They performed for nigh onto two hours with absolutely no patter, except for a brief band intro late in the show. Well, there was one other line, rattled off to introduce the evening’s only new song, “American Gangster Time.” (“Here’s a song about a mercenary bastard. One, two, three…”) Lengthy song intros would just be a waste of time; these guys Had Songs To Perform.
They packed 31 of them into the evening, drawn from across the span of Costello’s career. No one in the sold-out house needed intros anyway, not for numbers like “The Beat” and “Secondary Modern” and “Radio Radio.” And get this: the early ones, from My Aim Is True and This Year’s Model and Get Happy!, were often sped up from those original fast and furious tracks — no mean feat when you’re dealing with songs as wordy and witty as Costello’s. (Singing along – which I consider my duty as a concert-goer – was quite a challenge.) The sold-out house was packed with people who knew every lyric of “No Action” and “Lipstick Vogue”; no matter how fast they took it, we would have noticed if he missed a single snarky word. He didn’t.
There were no horn sections, no string quartets, no back-up singers. There were no videos (save for the Nokia’s standard drop-down screens to grant close-ups to the back rows). No special effects, no props, no costume changes. The Nokia is a wonderfully functional modern box of a theater with zero ambiance, but then, all the ambiance we needed came from that bare stage with the black-curtained backdrop.
A few fashion notes, if I may: The four guys on stage all wore down-to-business black. Drummer Pete Thomas opted for a simple T-shirt — a smart choice when you know you’re going to whale the hell out of your drum set for two hours straight. Bassist Davey Farragher wore a hipster porkpie hat. As front man, Elvis chose shades and a heavy-looking black shirt and suit coat combo (his forehead glistened with sweat from the opener, “Welcome To the Working Week,” onward), but that gangster look sent a clear don’t-mess-with-me message — perfectly in keeping with the nonstop onslaught of music.
In his loose flowing black shirt, organist Steve Nieve (the most talented keyboardist in rock and roll, if you ask me) was left free to whirl around and attack his assorted battery of keyboards like a man possessed. You really can’t hear “I Don’t Want to Go To Chelsea” or “Club Land” or “High Fidelity” without those classic Nieve organ lines — there must be a local ordinance against that — but he generously added stunning new riffs and effects to keep things interesting, without ever once getting self-indulgent.
There wasn’t a wasted lick or drum fill in the whole evening, actually. The act was pared down to essentials, and yet it was anything but minimalist. Four guys can make a lot of noise when they know what they’re doing. I have always underestimated Costello as a guitarist – it’s a natural error, considering what an overwhelmingly gifted songwriter and singer he is. But I was awed by his tough, crunchy guitar work last night. It wasn’t show-off guitar playing; he just gave these songs all the weight and edge they deserve. Period.
For me the evening’s highlight was a medley of “Watching the Detectives” and “Let Him Dangle” — an inspired pairing, like an episode of Law and Order, combining the film noir darkness of that early crime song with the latter’s savage howl against capital punishment. Sure, it was dark and ominous and chilling. That’s how I like it.
But no, wait. The real highlight was the solo acoustic rendition of “Alison” that led off the second encore set. Most vocalists who sing as hard as Elvis have shot their voices by age 50, but Elvis’s voice is stronger, more supple, truly better than ever, particularly in the upper register. We knew this already from the way he’d belted earlier songs in the evening, like “Shabby Doll” and “Either Side of the Same Town” and “Alibi”, but he took “Alison” – which I’ve listened to for over half my life – to a new level. That revved-up crowd was thrilled into silence, simply gobsmacked. Then he proceeded to torch it up for three more songs in a row, “Kid About It,” “River in Reverse,” and “Dissolve.” I was almost woozy with delight.
Yeah, Elvis looks a little heavier in the jowls, the shoulders slightly stooped, the hairline diving backwards. But the energy is still there, and the intensity – that take-no-prisoners approach to rock music he’s always had. The handy journo label for Elvis back in 1977 was “angry young man”; now what would you call him? A furious mature man? He certainly hasn’t gone mellow on us, but even more important, he hasn’t gone bitter either. Or jaded. Or resigned. At the end of the evening, delivering a hellbent rendition of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding,” Elvis threw in a passionate refrain demanding “Bring the boys home / Bring them back alive.” He still believes it’s worth trying, that injustice is worth getting upset about. BRAVO.
During the show, as the band launched into one familiar song after another, I kept thinking to myself, “He’s playing everything! Every big song! Every number I want to hear!” Heading out into the Times Square night afterward, though, I began to recall all the great tunes he hadn’t played. Greedy ingrate that I am, I actually felt let down. Only one song from Armed Forces? Nothing from Punch the Clock, or King of America, or Brutal Youth?
That’s the trouble with Elvis – no matter how much incredible music he laid on us that night, it wasn’t enough. It never is.