UPPER DARBY, PA. — When an artist whose work is greatly enriched by the musical accompaniment provided by others announces a solo tour, the public usually reacts cynically; ego, greed and financial desperation are the most frequently suggested motives for such an endeavor.
But Elvis Costello's current solo tour seems to be a perfectly natural and even generous undertaking. Costello constantly explores different musical genres, from rock to soul to country to sophisticated pop, so it's no surprise that he would want to inhabit the folky trappings of the wandering troubadour for awhile. And what better place to do that than in America, the land of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan?
He's already finished recording his next album with The Attractions, which will be released in June, at which time he and his group will tour Australia and Japan before coming Stateside in August. So, now, instead of taking a complete breather between projects, he's chosen to embark on a "working holiday" via this relatively brief (three week) and informal visit to our country.
One thing this outing does have in common with Elvis' past visits is an outstanding opening act. In the past he's hosted Rockpile and Mink DeVille (that package, unfortunately, by-passed Philly), The Rubinoos, Squeeze and Aztec Camera. This time, he's complemented perfectly by T Bone Burnett, the tall, folk-rockin', California-based Texan who's a veteran of Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue and The Alpha Band.
Burnett's own records, Truth Decay, Trap Door and Proof Through The Night, have all been critically acclaimed for their wit, moral fibre and outstanding musicianship. And Burnett himself, unlike Costello, is already an established solo performer, as anyone who caught the short acoustic set sandwiched between those he performed with his band last Fall at The Chestnut Cabaret knows.
Burnett put his sense of humor in action right away. Sitting at a grand piano, he started pounding out a little boogie-woogie, and as it became more frantic, so did he. Squirming in his seat, he jumped up, sat back down, crouched up again, hit the piano keys with his toes, kicked over the piano bench, turned around, and played backwards, without missing a note!
Only, as the dazed audience applauded with delight, Burnett revealed that the joke was on us; he lept away from the piano, yet the music kept on playing! All along, he'd been stringing us along with his own Memorex commercial!
Burnett performed lots of songs from his last couple of records, including "Pressure," "Fatally Beautiful," "After All These Years," "Baby, Fall Down," and "Trap Door." Several of these, plus new ones like "The Power Of Love" and "My Life And The Women Who Lived It" are filled with Christian spirit lightened by comedy and made interesting on a purely secular level by rich lyrical detail.
Burnett tickled and slashed at his guitar strings ala Pete Townshend and sang in voice that was pure Bob Dylan/Arlo Guthrie nasal, yet his presentation added up to something all his own and quite wonderful!
Elvis Costello's opening number, "Accidents Will Happen," was all but drowned out by the audience, scrambling for their seats and squealing with excitement. Throughout the rest of his set, however, you could hear a pin drop in the Tower, as the crowd adjusted to Costello's sparse accompaniment and emotional singing, and seized the opportunity to decipher, finally, some of his more cryptic lyrics.
How nice it was to become better acquainted with the man's wit and, of course, songs. "This is set in a locale exclusive to America — a singles bar," he explained, "Men Called Uncle" from the Get Happy!! album. "In America you always get at least twice the portion of what you want. I asked for an accordion, and they brought me this!" he exclaimed, sitting down at the grand piano. And performing "Motel Matches" with only his own, spare electric piano playing for accompaniment, he revealed a sense of sadness that is missing from the recorded version.
One other revelation of the evening was Costello's ability as a musician. When he plays with the Attractions, his guitar work is often lost in the mix of instruments. It was good to learn that he doesn't merely go through the motions when wearing a guitar. His chord changes were in natural rhythmic synch with his vocal phrasing. And, although hardly in the same league as Steve Nieve, Elvis proved quite adept at playing simple, or, in the infamous words of David Crosby, "songwriter" piano.
I had fun trying to guess what numbers Elvis might perform. Country tunes like "Stranger In The House" and "Motel Matches" were easy to predict, as were the lilting "New Amsterdam," the pensive "Almost Blue," and the yearning "Kid About It."
I figured he'd do either "Shot With His Own Gun" or "Losing You," both of which are melodramatic piano numbers, and, sure enough, he sang the latter. But I was also sure he'd do "Alison" at the piano; yet, much to my chagrin, he performed it with an acoustic guitar. And instead of covering numbers by Gram Parsons and George Jones, he unearthed some goodies from the songbooks of Bob Dylan ("I Threw It All Away") and Charlie Rich ("One Day I'll Make It All Up To You").
Of course El previewed some of his new material as well, including "The Only Flame In Town," another of his pretty but bitter love songs, "The Whole Truth Ends," a sad recognition of the eliding of a relationship, and "Peace In Our Time," in which he warned us, "There's already one spaceman in the White House." They indicated that the forthcoming album should be another corker; this solo show certainly was.