Finally, Ann Arbor will see Elvis rock
2 previous gigs were acoustic; this time, he brings the band
Sunday, April 17, 2005
BY WILL STEWART
News Special Writer
For an artist whose stylistic restlessness is matched only by his near-constant touring schedule, local performances by Elvis Costello have been frustratingly few and far between.
Memories and records indicate that Costello has played twice before in Ann Arbor - both solo acoustic affairs - having favored Detroit over its smaller, college-town neighbor by a nearly 6-to-1 ratio.
Which makes the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer's performance Tuesday with his band, the Imposters, not only a rare treat, but also a glimpse into the back catalog of one of rock music's most prolific and gifted songwriters.
"It's hard to even remember all the times I've driven to Detroit to see him at Pine Knob, or, in the real early days, the Royal Oak Music Theater or the Fox (Theater) or wherever," said Ken Sheedy of Ypsilanti. "But those two Ann Arbor shows really stand out, just because they were close to home and they were special shows."
Since his emergence out of the London punk explosion as a geeky misfit in ill-fitting suits and Buddy Holly glasses, Costello has been almost as closely associated with his bands - first, the Attractions, and, more recently, a slightly tweaked version of the classic Attractions, cheekily dubbed the Imposters.
But for the two previous Ann Arbor shows, Costello appeared solo and mostly acoustic, delivering stripped-down versions of his classic catalogue and an assortment of covers that delved into his love of British dancehall music and American country and western.
For Cheryl Anderson, who had been a massive Costello fan since she picked up his debut album, "My Aim is True," as an import at Schoolkids Records in 1978, seeing the singer arrive onstage at Hill Auditorium without the Attractions in April 1984 was a letdown.
"I just assumed when my roommate and I got the tickets that it would be a concert with the whole band," said Anderson, whose disappointment was partly influenced by a crush she had at the time on Attractions drummer Steve Thomas. "About halfway through the first song, I guess I'd forgotten all that and just became engrossed in the songs."
Although specific details of the show evade her more than 20 years later, Anderson remembers how Costello's songs - stripped of the bombast and driving force of the Attractions' versions - emerged as fully-formed masterpieces capable of standing alone amid the sparest of arrangements.
"Of course now everyone talks about how he's one of the greatest songwriters ever," Anderson said. "But for me, that was the first time I really became aware of the humor and sadness in those songs."
By the time Costello returned to Hill Auditorium in 1989, his star had fallen at least a little. His mid-1980s records "King of America" and "Blood and Chocolate," despite moments of brilliance, failed to match the genius of his first handful of albums.
However, 1989's "Spike" was embraced by at least some fans and critics as a return to form, and it was on the strength of this album that Costello returned to Hill Auditorium in April of that year for another solo outing, this time supported and occasionally joined onstage by longtime collaborator Nick Lowe.
"Absolutely my favorite Elvis Costello concert ever," said Sheedy, who has seen the singer at least 30 times, including shows in several states, as well as France, England and Germany. "He's always charming and nearly always gives a great show, but there was something about this show that was really special.
"It was so intimate and so personal, it was like he was performing in someone's living room for a couple of friends."
An accurate set list from that particular showis hard to find. However, Internet fan sites list Monkees and Dylan covers alongside stripped-down versions of classic Costello songs like "Accidents Will Happen" and "Allison" cropping up regularly on that tour.
And, of course, there was the Spinning Songbook, a Wheel-of-Fortune-style spinning wheel that listed 38 song titles that determined which tunes he would play for a portion of the show.
"One thing you can usually say about (Costello) is that he's a pretty intense performer," Sheedy said. "But there was something about this show that was relaxed and casual and he just seemed so happy to let things unfold however they did.
"I think it says something about his artistry that he's able to adapt his set to the whims of a roulette wheel."
Costello's show on Tuesday isn't likely to be as off-the-cuff. Ironically though, earlier shows on this tour - which finds him backed by the rocking Imposters, which includes former Attractions Pete Thomas on drums and Steve Nieve on keyboards - have explored the nooks and crannies of Costello's earliest albums, with only cursory nods to his latest work.
"There's no such thing as a bad Elvis Costello show," Sheedy said. "But I'm excited to see him finally play his first all-out rock show in Ann Arbor."