Costello and company
Thursday, July 21, 2005
BY JAY LUSTIG
NEW YORK -- "Featuring the vocal stylings of Emmylou Harris." That was the way the legendary country singer's Tuesday night appearance at Central Park Summerstage -- with Elvis Costello and his band, the Imposters -- was billed.
It meant she wouldn't open the show, but would sing with Costello. And she did, in fact, play a central role in Costello's set, her gossamer tone blending smoothly with Costello's comparatively gruff but still richly burnished voice.
She sang on more than half the songs, including all eight encores -- everything from the hard-rocking protest song "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" to a cover of the Rolling Stones' tender "Wild Horses." She also led the Imposters, featuring two members of Costello's original Attractions band (keyboardist Steve Nieve, drummer Pete Thomas), through her own "Red Dirt Girl" and a cover of Townes Van Zandt's "Pancho and Lefty."
This was the second show of a two-week tour, which follows Harris' guest appearances on Costello's 2004 album "The Delivery Man" and his April DVD, "Club Date: Live in Memphis." Eight of the 13 "Delivery Man" songs, from the stately "Country Darkness" to the playful "Monkey To Man," made it into the show.
The 2 1/2-hour show had plenty of room for everything. Costello -- who kept his jacket on all night long, despite the heat and humidity -- didn't stint on older material such as the punk-era anthem "Pump It Up," the slinky, deep-grooved "Temptation," the pop confection "Everyday I Write the Book," the Elvis (Presley)-ish "Mystery Dance," and rhythmically jagged compositions like "(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea" and "Clubland."
Multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell appeared on all of Harris' songs, and some other numbers as well. His pedal steel was appropriately spooky on "Waiting For the End of the World." And his lilting lead guitar allowed Costello to get closer to the sound of the original recording of "Alison" than Costello can with just his own rhythm guitar.
Inspired by the presence of Harris and Campbell, Costello indulged his lifelong love of American roots music. An Englishman who now lives in New York with wife, pianist Diana Krall, ("It's good to be home again," he said), he found a middle ground between honky tonk and British pub-rock on covers of Merle Haggard's "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down" and Hank Williams' "Why Don't You Love Me (Like You Used To Do)?" He also gave a country twist to Bob Dylan's "When I Paint My Masterpiece," featuring Campbell on mandolin.
"There's a certain type of music that you can't sing on two microphones," Costello said before sharing a mike with Harris, bluegrass-style, for the Louvin Brothers' "My Baby's Gone." He, Harris and bassist Davey Faragher also huddled around a microphone, with Campbell playing violin behind them, for the country standard "Gathering Flowers for the Master's Bouquet."
Harris sang with country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons in the early 1970s, and Costello is clearly a fan of Parsons, who died in 1973. Costello covered two Parsons songs on his 1981 country album, "Almost Blue," and Tuesday's show was full of songs written and/or recorded by Parsons: "Wheels," "Sleepless Nights" and a breathlessly fast version of "Luxury Liner," in addition to "Wild Horses" (which Parsons sang with his band, the Flying Burrito Brothers) and the signature duet of the Parsons/Harris partnership, "Love Hurts."
It took nerve to sing "Love Hurts" with Harris, since her version with Parsons is definitive. But Costello pulled it off, echoing Parsons' haunted but stoic delivery without stooping to mere mimicry; the merged voices conveyed a message of hope that transcended the lyrics' bleakness.