After finishing a typically amazing two hour set Wednesday night at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco last Wed. (May 15), Elvis Costello and his buddy, pianist Steve Nieve of the Attractions), drove across the Golden Gate Bridge to Mill Valley, where they came on stage at midnight and played another typically amazing 1½ hour long set.
The event was a private party at the Sweetwater Saloon, a bar where Elvis had first performed seven years earlier at a friend's birthday party. In attendance Wednesday in the crowd of a little more than 100 were Bay Area music industry types, the odd Marin county musician (Bob Weir), and the obligatory friends of Elvis.
Over the course of his career, Elvis has always found ways to keep his music and his performances fresh, whether by using different groups of backing musicians (the Attractions, the Rude 5, the Confederates), or employing Wheel of Fortune devices for audience song selections. This tour has found him presenting his music in a stripped down, largely acoustic format of guitar and grand piano. The result is a significant re-working of older material, and new takes on songs which were only just released this week on his new album All This Useless Beauty.
Performing on the small stage, decked out in a tropical print floral shirt and black leather vest, Elvis stuck largely to material from the new album, with a few older chestnuts tossed in along the way. With the stripped down format, the song treatments tended towards ballad renderings even when the original versions may have been more up-tempo. When his opening number, "Temptation," was released on the Get Happy album, it had a Booker T and the MG's "Time Is Tight" beat. At Sweetwater, he performed the tune with only a piano accompaniment, and leaned heavily on his plaintive vocals, which stood up remarkably well over the total of 3½ hours he performed at the two venues.
Elvis told a lot of stories throughout the evening, making an already intimate experience even more personal. Oddly enough, during the song "Just About Glad," a tune he described as "sort of an anti-nostalgia song," ("Just about glad we didn't do that thing / just about glad we didn't have that fling"), he reminisced about coming to the Bay Area in 1977.
"This was the first place we ever set foot in America after we flew in from London. At the time, we were trying to rid the world of Gin and Tonic. I was just 23, and in my mind, I was 14. We checked into a HoJo's hotel, and it was the best hotel we'd ever stayed in. It had color television and bathrooms in the rooms! I was so excited, I nearly didn't leave the room, but finally I decided to check out the town. We got a taxi, and I told the cabbie, 'Take me to where it's at,' so he took us to Polk St. (Note: a San Francisco gay district). I thought, these are the strangest bars, there's no girls here."
The songs on All This Useless Beauty are tunes Elvis had written for other musicians, some of which had never been recorded before, and he relayed memories about the creation of these tunes.
"Complicated Shadows": "I wrote this song for Johnny Cash. I could see him acting like Judge Dredd singing it."
"Dirty Rotten Shame" (which didn't make it to the album): "I wrote this song after seeing Bill Monroe perform. Towards the end of the performance, he said 'I remember the good ol' days,' and a hush fell over the audience, waiting to hear about the good ol' days. Then he said, 'they're gone.'"
"Little Atoms": "I was in Germany recently, and I was being interviewed by one of those typical German journalists: trench coat, steel rim glasses, body of Uma Thurman, the voice of Laurence Olivier. He said to me (Elvis using German accent) 'You are trying to destroy pop music like Wagner tried to destroy symphonic music.' He also said, 'This song contains the German National Anthem.' They look for these things. Watch out, we could all end up singing it."
Several songs from the new album already sound like classics, especially "Other End (of the Telescope)," a tune which he co-wrote with Aimee Mann, and the aforementioned up-tempo number "Little Atoms."
Other highlights of the evening were "Oliver's Army" and an achingly beautiful "Almost Blue," with his voice still crooning strong at 1:00 AM.
"I like this late night stuff," Elvis commented at one point in the evening. So do we.