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Concert Review: Elvis Costello & The Imposters at the Beacon Theater

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Elvis was in the building Friday night, and the sold-out crowd at the Beacon Theater was eager to see him. Costello, nattily attired in a three-piece suit and accompanied by the Imposters, was clearly just as happy to be there when he took the stage at 9:00 and opened his two-hour set with a rousing “Welcome To The Working Week”.

The show was opened earlier by young Norwegian singer-songwriter Sondre Lerche, who sang several appealing tunes, accompanying himself with some very fine guitar playing. His comfortable stage presence, even in the face of the few boors who needed to reaffirm for him that they were there to see Elvis, endeared him to the rest of the audience. He ought to be heard from in these parts more often, and after Friday night, he likely will be.

Given Costello’s long (and still flourishing) career and his own omnivorous tastes, a setlist for any show is always interesting, and not something you’d want to bet the farm on beforehand. This evening’s was no exception, and while the current tour (entitled The Monkey Speaks His Mind) is in support of his most recent release, The Delivery Man, the two-hour show had Costello dipping deep into his own musical past and included some really well-done covers that Elvis has stamped indelibly with his own musical sensibilities (complete setlist here). His onstage performances are invested with so much energy and so much engagement with his material that even his oldest songs sound fresh and immediate. While his fans don’t always appreciate the musical detours his career has taken, it’s impossible to question his dedication to his work and his determination to give his audience their money’s worth. Both he and the Imposters worked hard and were in fine form throughout the evening.

Not surprisingly, the packed house was enthusiastic in its embrace of such crowd-pleasers as “Watching The Detectives”, “Radio, Radio”, “(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea” and “Pump It Up”, and there were some nice surprises in the form of “Mystery Dance”, “Kinder Murder” and “Clown Strike”. While Costello has never been known as a guitar virtuoso, his playing skills have really developed over the years and were displayed to good advantage during a long version of “Clubland”, which was one of the highlights of the show for me. The newer material was nice to hear in live performance and the tracks I like the best off the album were good here, particularly “Bedlam”, accentuated by Pete Thomas’s frenetic drumming, “Needle Time” and “Monkey To Man”, in which Costello invited the rest of us to sing along.

About two-thirds of the way into the show, Costello introduced blues guitarist Hubert Sumlin, who accompanied him on “Hidden Charms”, a song once recorded by blues legend Howlin’ Wolf, with whom Sumlin played for many years (and which was covered by Costello on Kojak Variety), and featured a little bit of a playful Elvis singing into his guitar pickups.

Costello had cancelled a show because of illness a couple of weeks ago, and towards the end of the evening, his voice was showing signs of hoarseness, made more visible by his idiosyncratic vocal delivery, but he held on through a rousing finish that included an impassioned version of Smokey Robinson’s “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me” (which Costello frequently pairs with his own “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror” but which stood on its own this evening), “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?” and Nick Lowe’s “Heart Of The City”. He has taken to closing shows on this tour with “The Scarlet Tide”, a lovely ballad that he wrote for the soundtrack of the film, Cold Mountain, and which is also the closing track on The Delivery Man. He sings the last verse off-mic, a stillness falling over the audience for the first time all evening.

The monkey will continue to speak his mind throughout much of the summer – if you manage to catch a show, I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

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About Lisa McKay

  • http://www.morethings.com/senate Al Barger

    Usually, I’d want to see a singer do his classic hits, and regard sitting through some of the new album as an indulgence to the artist. In this case, though, I’d really like to see Elvis play the entire Delivery Man.

    I note that the set list does not include at least a couple of the best songs from the new album. I’m all in favor of “Uncomplicated,” but at this point, I’d definitely be more excited to hear “The Name of This Thing Is Not Love” and “Button My Lip.”

  • SFC SKI

    Once Costello got rid of Bruce Thompson, arguably the best bass player of that era, EC never heald as much of an attraction for me.

  • http://www.thebeautifullull.com Tom Johnson

    That’s a real shame, SFC Ski, you’ve missed out on some great music. I find it kind of hard to fathom that you’d lose interest in an artist whose known primarily for his songwriting skills because he no longer plays with a particular bassist, unless your only interest was Bruce Thomas, which would make sense. Costello still writes great songs . . .

  • SFC SKI

    After Thompson left, Costello’s style changed in such a way that I no longer enjoyed him a a performer. I think it was a bit jealousy on EC’s part, without a strong guitar up front, Thompson’s bass naturally filled the gaps, without overplaying, BTW. It may not be that, it seems like they never really got on well, just bad chemistry.
    EC may still right great songs, but it was the sound the Attractions brought to his songs that made me want to listen to whatever it was he had to say.

  • SFC SKI

    BTW, Los Lobos covered “Uncomplicated” on their EP, “Ride This”, it is really great.

  • http://www.morethings.com/senate Al Barger

    With due respect to the outstanding bass work Bruce Thomas provided in the early part of his Elvis’ career, he’s not the only oyster in the stew. At this point, Elvis can get any musician he wants to work with. I haven’t missed Mr Thomas.

    The animosity between Elvis and his former bass player particularly included a tell-all book Mr Thomas wrote some years ago about his time with Elvis. Elvis elliptically wrote his reaction to this into “Hurry Down Doomsday.”

  • http://wisdomandmurder.blogspot.com Lisa McKay

    Now that I fixed my Amazon links, let me say this…

    Ski, while I agree that Thomas was a good bass player, and his problems with EC were probably very much a function of ego, Costello likely would have changed musical styles anyway; I think that’s more of a function of his nature and his interests than the fact that he ditched his bass player. There are lots of people who think Elvis’s earlier work is his best; I see him as continually evolving, and while I certainly don’t like everything he does equally, I am rarely bored.

  • SFC SKI

    Glad you enjoyed the show.

  • http://wisdomandmurder.blogspot.com Lisa McKay

    And Ski, don’t forget that the Imposters are in fact two thirds of the Attractions. I’d argue that Steve Nieve makes a much stronger contribution to Costello’s sound and would be more sorely missed than Bruce Thomas.

  • godoggo

    Sorry for highjacking the thread, but this just needed to be said. I just saw a Von’s commercial with music that sounds alarmingly like the string arrangement from Lou Reed’s “Street Hassle.” What can one say but “weird?”

  • Eric Olsen

    thanks Lisa, very nice review, glad you liked the show

  • http://wisdomandmurder.blogspot.com Lisa McKay

    Thanks, Eric. I’m already angling to see him once or twice more during the summer.

  • Jim Fisher

    Wow! Some impossible to ignore spelling mistakes here! The biggest one to have Bruce Thomas referred to as Bruce Thompson! Anyway, Bruce THOMAS is one of my favorite musicians in the world, and it would be nice to have him perform with my favorite singer/songwriter/composer E. Costello. I bemoan the loss of Bruce everytime I see (or hear) the New Attractions/Imposters, I still enjoy them very much. I also agree that Steve Nieve is the more integral part of the Costello sound. BTW, Sondre Lerche performed a fantastic set in Atlantic City last month.

  • http://mattlargo.blogspot.com/2006/01/cd-review-jon-yeager-truth-volume.html Matt Largo

    Hey Lisa,

    I was just perusing for reviews on some of my favorite musicians and found this E. Costello review. Very cool! I love Elvis Costello! I’ve seen him a few times over the years. Also a coincidence…My first B.C. post was a review of a CD by Jon Yeager called Truth & Volume. It just so happens that Jon Yeager was Sondre Lerche’s tour manager for a while about a year ago. Small world.

  • http://wisdomandmurder.blogspot.com Lisa McKay

    Small world, indeed, Matt. I’m a bit of a fanatic when it comes to Elvis (in fact, when I first came to Blogcritics I was posting under the nom de internet of Distorted Angel). I saw him one more time on that tour, with Emmylou Harris, and that show was even better than the one at the Beacon. He’s touring again right now, doing orchestral performances of Il Sogno, followed by some solo stuff, and I’m angling to catch him either in Boston or New York sometime this spring (and you’ll probably read about it here).