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Review of concert from 2002-11-05: Birmingham, AL, Alabama Theatre - with Imposters
Mediajonez, 2002-11-08
- Andy Spain


Elvis Costello and the Imposters in Concert

Alabama Theatre
Birmingham, Alabama

by Andy Spain

When Elvis Costello took the stage at the elegant and intimate Alabama Theatre, it was the first time he'd set foot in any Birmingham that wasn't in England in 23 years. By the time the two-and-a-half hour performance was over, he had more than made up for lost time. Costello, who is currently touring for his latest album, When I Was Cruel, played an energetic set full of surprises, favorite songs, and intensely raw emotion. I've never seen anyone put so much into a show, especially one who's been on the scene for over two decades.

The band opened up with the scathing "I Hope You're Happy Now", immediately setting up the audience for a night of powerful, frantic rock 'n' roll, which was reinforced with a straight-on version of "Tear Off Your Own Head". After this opening, he made an on-stage reference to the long absence from the city, and with the manner of a true gentlemen made lighthearted amends by launching into "Accidents Will Happen", which further excited the crowd. Through the night he played a generous mix of well-known songs from his years with The Attractions, as well as gems from later albums, and a few songs from When I Was Cruel. The Alabama crowd, although not filling the 1920's-era moviehouse's 2,200 seat capacity, was enthusiastic and very responsive, and Elvis kept them on their feet for most of the show. Did I mention the man gave FOUR encores? That's right, and not just one song and off - these were almost sets unto themselves. It was very obvious the man was having a great time, which he transferred to the crowd with incredible vigor.

Costello's voice was in rare form; thick and snarly at times, as full and bellowing as an opera singer at others. As he howled through songs like "High Fidelity" and "Clubland", he exhibited a range and clarity that most rockers his age (he's 47) could only dream of. He cleverly improvised melodies with a mix of comic and sardonic flair, putting every ounce of energy into the songs, which many in the audience knew by heart. His guitar playing was almost equally as impressive as he cut through riffs in songs like "(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea" and "Pump It Up". Of course, Elvis couldn't do it alone. His backing band, calling themselves The Imposters, are actually two-thirds of the Attractions, Costello's original band. Keyboardist Steve Nieve jammed through the organ-laden songs and even broke out a theremin (go look it up) on a couple of occasions. Pete Thomas' drumming was solid and held it together when the band got too loose, and ex-Cracker bassist Davey Faragher gave the songs needed drive as well as providing harmony vocals.

One of the evening's most impressive surprises was midway through the main set when he gave the band a break to do a solo acoustic version of "Still Too Soon To Know". Puzzlement and curiosity rose amongst the crowd as he stepped out beyond his microphone to the edge of the stage and began strumming the quiet chords, and then belting out this incredibly moving version into the open air of the hall. It was like a performance from an earlier age, and Costello played the role of minstrel flawlessly. It really takes a lot of guts these days to abandon the safety net of amplification and mixing boards to give a perfectly naked performance as this, and the crowd responded by leaping to their feet and roaring adulation to him. I've never seen anything like it.

The first set ended with many of his best-known songs unperformed. This was rectified over the course of the four encores that followed. He ripped through faves like "Radio, Radio" and "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" ferociously, but did not rush the set at all. He did a passionate version of "Alison", which he extended with bits of Jim Reeves' "He'll Have to Go" and a few lines from "Suspicious Minds", in a nod to that other Elvis. His rendition of "Episode of Blonde" from his latest disc was also a treat, and he delivered it with theatrical panache and style. The evening closed with an intense, darkly powerful rendition of the bitterly jealous ballad "I Want You", which reached into the chests of all attending and ripped their hearts out with raw precision. In the end, the audience was left stunned, and utterly spent.

The opening act, Laura Cantrell, played a pleasing set of original country-folk in the Gram Parsons vein. Cantrell, a sturdy young woman with striking looks, evoked Emmylou Harris with her simple black dress and acoustic guitar, and sang sweetly with a lovely mountain sound that captivated the audience, especially when accompanied by the harmonies of the band. Mandolin/pedal steel player Jon Graboff also stood out as a seasoned performer, adding richness to the band's honest sound.

I have been a Costello fan for a long time, but I had no idea what to expect when I walked into the venue. I had half-expected the usual "aging rocker" tour, like the zombiefied Rolling Stones or even Dylan's recent on-and-off performances. Instead, I was blown away by the sheer force of the music, and impressed by the amount of himself Elvis put into the show. Surprisingly, he didn't play "Everyday I Write The Book", or the wonderful title track to his new album, which I figured would be obvious includes. Instead, he played songs that were to the point, and gave the audience not what they expected, but what they needed - a re-education in rock.

Copyright 2002 Mediajonez. All rights reserved.


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