Monday, November 7, 2016

*Costello*Imposters*Imperial Bedroom*Beacon Theatre*

"Yeah, it was good. I don't know. There was something missing. But then I think, maybe it's me."

My friend said this, as we walked south on Broadway, after seeing Elvis Costello & The Imposters play a solid 2:45 at NYC's Beacon Theatre.

Pete Thomas is still one of the best rock drummers out there.

Steve Nieve is a wonder of talent on the keys.

Davey Faragher, while no Bruce Thomas, does a fine job keeping bottom and he handled all the vocal arrangements for this tour, as well.

I think the problem with the show, what's missing, was Elvis Costello.

It's not you, my friend.

It was a dream set list for many, with all of 1982's masterpiece "Imperial Bedroom" played, wisely, out of order, though "Boy With A Problem" only got a brief reference as part of "Shot With His Own Gun." The rest of the set was mostly comprised of songs released between 1977-1983, some with brilliant new arrangements, like the almost bossa nova-styled take on "Pills & Soap" and the slow R&B burn of "Tears Before Bedtime," both with wonderful backing vocals from Faragher and two women, one named Kitten and one named YahZarah.

My main issue with the performance was the feeling like I was watching an Elvis Costello impersonator. Costello, never a great guitar player and once referring to himself as "the little hands of concrete," seemed like he stopped trying altogether. If his Rickenbacker wasn't awash in distortion and tremolo, his Fender sounded out of tune. Or maybe, he was just playing badly. Most of the set was a muddy mess. It'd be easy to blame the theatre and the sound man, but once EC picked up the acoustic, sadly not often enough, the sound was clean and you finally heard the other members of the band.  But also, Elvis seemed more intent on being a guitar hero, with extended Neil Young noise solos in the middle and at the ends of three minute pop tunes.

There were highlights, of course. Most of "Imperial Bedroom" sounded fresh. "Green Shirt" was powerful, and took over the entire theatre. And the groove on "Every Day I Write The Book," with good old fashioned band intros, was a blast. But EC's voice is just not cutting it on the ballads, tunes like the Bacharach co-write "This House Is Empty Now" and "Almost Blue," were cringemaking, at times, like you just wanted him to pull through. And both Kitten and YahZarah were too busy with their histrionics to add anything more than annoying squeals to most of the songs. "Alison," one that I never tire of, was quite frankly, horrible, with Elvis barely playing his guitar and the two singers literally screaming the name "AAAAAAAALIIIISSOOOONN" into the microphone.

Elvis moved from guitar to piano, and told some stories, thankfully none as painful as the "God's Comic" intro of 1989. He danced around like a broken marionette and looked extremely uncomfortable. But still, there is no question about the brilliance of his songwriting, but...

There were two new songs, written for a musical version of "A Face In The Crowd." I hope the rest of the songs are better than "Blood & Hot Sauce" and "American Mirror,"  otherwise the show will open and close in Alamagordo. These songs were the lowlights of the evening.

I enjoyed a good portion of the show. But where Bruce Springsteen & the ESB still have the ability to make a stadium feel intimate with their passion, I felt completely detached from Elvis Costello in a 2000 seater.

Maybe it's me.


Eric said...

That's a if not my favorite album of Costello

David Handelman said...

Hm. I experienced some of the same disappointments, but it did not add up to as alienating a night for me as it seems to have for you.

Elvis isn't just hoarse, he's off-key, and I can't help wondering if he's going deaf or something. Or maybe the sound for him is as bad up there as it is for the audienece. And yes, the new songs were problematic, but I haven't really spent time with a "new" Costello album literally since Brutal Youth, which at this point is 22 years. I do have an ongoing problem with the absence of Bruce Thomas. I understand he was an asshole etc etc., but not having him there reminds me of REM touring without Bill Berry. it's just not the same. It's not just nostalgia, his playing led to many bass-centric grooves a la Entwhistle that just aren't there any more, which is probably why you also are more aware of Elvis's guitar limitations.

BUT -- Compared to album-centric shows where artists have simply played the songs in the same order (and usually in the same arrangements) which removes a lot of drama of the live performance, I thought he did an admirable job of juggling the songs, changing up the arrangements (Little Savage took me a while to recognize), contextualize them both in terms of his motives/frame of mind around some of the songs, where he was at in his career, and even plucking catalogue songs that in retrospect are precursors to the huge leap that Imperial seemed at the time. (Not having read his autobio, perhaps you weren't as wowed by the chatter.)

I left happy to have seen it. As my college roommate pointed out beforehand, I now have seen in the past 9 months, Joe Jackson, Graham Parker and Elvis (and yes Bruce), which, if you had told me in 1980 I would be doing 36 years later, I would have been surprised or depressed. But all of them put on good-enough shows, and I can't fault them for trying to recapture their songwriting genius -- nobody really is as fecund as they are in their 20s. The fact he did IB when he was 26 -- after already 5 solid albums of material -- is reason enough to not bemoan that his live show isn't what it was when he played Broadway 30 years ago.

David Handelman said...

I wish I could edit the above -- since ALL THIS USELESS BEAUTY which was 1996. Sorry I forgot the order of his records!

Sal Nunziato said...


All great points. I cannot disagree with any of them. But let me add:

I've listened to every EC with great excitement and only recently raved again about the forgotten gems that are "Momofuku" and "Secret, Profane & Sugar Cane."

I didn't find the show "alienating." I was happy to have seen it, like you. I just wasn't wowed. It's very difficult for me to take music and separate it from all that comes before and after. McCartney's still touring at 74 and he has been with this band longer than either The Beatles or Wings. But his age is showing in his voice. A great feat and a thrill to see a Beatles crank out 3 hours in concert at his age. Still unpleasant to hear how weak his voice has become.

buzzbabyjesus said...

I'm not sorry I missed it.

wardo said...

I saw the Wallingford show on Saturday, from the second to last row in the upper deck. It was one of the best EC shows I've seen, right up with my first (last night of the '86 tour with the Attractions) and Memphis in 2004 for the Club Date DVD filming. I could have done without "On Your Way Down", but at least he got "Detectives" out of the way early, and didn't drag it out. Seemed in a good mood, too.

Sal Nunziato said...

I should have gone to Wallingford. And Wardo, I was at that Memphis DVD filming, too. You can see me a number of times, right up front, miserable and drenched in sweat, wearing a James Booker tee. (Great show.)

A walk in the woods said...

Interesting! I haven't seen Elvis in a few years.... this isn't promising.

Matt Luxenberg said...

On the plus side you were fortunate to see him perform all of Imperial Bedroom. I was fortunate to see the Imperial Bedroom tour at Forest Hills and still return to that record on a regular basis.

Bill said...


While I would not put this in my top 5 Elvis shows, I had a great time last night. Interspersing the songs from Imperial Bedroom throughout the set--instead of playing the album all in a row from top to bottom--kept the night interesting, and made each song stand out more than it might. I really enjoyed Steve Nieve's various keyboards, especially on the more orchestral numbers like ...And In Every Home and Town Cryer. But even the piano lines on a song like The Loved Ones came through.

Davey did a nice job of replicating some of Bruce Thomas' more muscular bass lines, although they really have different styles. The bass was such an important part of those Attractions records.

I thought some of the rearrangements--particularly on Tears Before Bedtime--gave a fresh look to those songs, and Pills and Soap was a nice topical surprise.

Elvis' voice did seem to drop out here and there--not sure if that was a vocal issue or a sound issue--but I thought he had a lot of power on many of the more rocking numbers, especially on Lipstick Vogue and High Fidelity.
Not sure I would liken his current performance to being an Elvis impersonator--if that were the case, I think we'd see the pigeon-toed stance and a lot of bile-posing. This is just a more mature Elvis.

So, again, an enjoyable evening for me. But, as they say, your mileage may vary.

Bill said...

Oh, and I agree with the Alison rendition. The caterwauling did nothing to enhance the song.

buzzbabyjesus said...

I've seen Elvis Costello twice. Two shows a week apart in 1978 with Mink DeVille, and Rockpile opening. (First in San Diego, and the second in Santa Barbara).

I have the Memphis DVD with Sal in attendance. It's very good.

David Handelman said...

Also wanted to mention I appreciate the two musical meta moments: "That's the problem and here's the hook" and "take it to the bridge, he sighs" and would love to know why he chose to put "PS I love you" in two songs on the same album. (Yes, I know he was working with Geoff Emerick, but....)

wardo said...

"I was at that Memphis DVD filming, too. You can see me a number of times, right up front, miserable and drenched in sweat, wearing a James Booker tee. (Great show.)"

Cool! Early or late? I can see me all the way in the back banging on the wall during "PLU", and you can hear me yell "Hooray" when he mentions the guitar supposedly owned by George Harrison.

Steve Mc said...

I saw EC and the band in Glasgow during the summer. Really enjoyed it. Not as much as when I saw him in the 80's but there y'go.

Maybe he just had a bad night in the office.

Would love him to bring the IB show back home, though.

Wasn't Tears Before Bedtime originally recorded as part of the Almost Blue sessions?