Elvis's first concert appearance of 2001 took place at Dublin's acclaimed new 900-seater Vicar Street venue where he joined a number of traditional musicians on the bill for a charity bash organised by his old friend Donal Lunny. Our Dublin cultural correspondent might have been forgiven for blanching at the likely prospect of an evening's "diddly music" punctuated by a brief Costello performance. Nonetheless, he went along anyway and was rewarded for his bravery in the line of duty when Elvis not only plaved for almost a full hour, but chose the occasion to showcase two previously unheard songs and a revised version of "Daddy Can I Turn This?" in a set which was anything but routine.
John Foyle reports:
Donal Lunny gave us all a scare. Introducing a performer midway through this charity show, he
commented that one of the evening's special guests had dropped out due to illness just a few days beforehand. Before he had time to draw breath, we were gripped by a mixture of emotions: a small dose of pity for the sick person; the thought that this was essentially a fund raiser, so it didn't really matter who appeared; and, charity or not, a moment's blind panic in case he was referring to Elvis...
A variety of accents could be heard in the venue's bar beforehand as we sought shelter from a freezing wind, waiting out the hour's delay to the scheduled 7pm opening of the auditorium ("sound-checking," said the bouncer). One clearly audible American was regaling his companion with the story of how a seven-year-old Elvis had "made a soft drinks commercial with his (EC's) Dad." As you can imagine, it came as some relief when, finally, we were allowed to take our seats. Attending alone, I found myself at a four-person table, a mere two tables away from the stage. The people who joined me were there for Elvis. Firstly, a couple who hadn't seen him live since witnessing all three Dublin dates of the ‘Spinning Songbook' tour in 1986 (the priorities of married life had interceded — now she had got him a ticket for tonight's gig as a birthday present). The other seat at our table was occupied by a New York girl in Dublin for a year's studies. She was clearly bonkers about Elvis, too.
This was going to be primarily an evening of Irish folk music. Like a lot of urban Irish people, I associate such music with Irish college, a summer camp kind of thing that school children here "experience" in their early teens. Monotonous reels of the same notes over and over just never really worked for me and this boring music soon assumed a secondary role to the more interesting teenage pursuits of girls and alcoholic drink — or something like that. Thus, perching on one of the fixed stools around a tiny circular table, I assumed a tolerant expression as Donal Lunny, the evening's main organiser (and many-a-time collaborator with Elvis) took the stage at 8.20. Smiling a lot, he welcomed us and introduced many stalwarts (I'm told) of the lrish traditional music scene, with tales of late night drink and music sessions on places like the Aran Islands. A lot of fiddling and banjoing ensued. On one level I did enjoy it, in that it would take a heart of stone not to he enthused by the joy which the performers did their thing. However, after a while it all started to sound very, very similar.
It was at around nine that Lunny started to make the announcement mentioned earlier. "Not Elvis," our concerned glances conveyed to each other instantly. I started thinking back to the minimal publicity the show had been getting. Tickets had still been available days beforehand, but the box office had been talking about a sell out as I arrived. Perhaps the organisers knew of a problem with Elvis' availability and thought we could be lured in and made to feel hopelessly guilty about demanding a refund, seeing as how the whole thing was for charity and all that. [Hey, John relax. Nobody's out to get you, right? — Ed.] Our concerns were somewhat allayed as Lunny welcomed the replacement for that unfortunate (and unnamed) guest, an accordion player named Marr Staunton (who I really and truly had never heard of). Surely they could never have the cheek to expect us to accept this as a stand in for Elvis?
So the evening progressed. It came to 10.20 and various persons were clearing the stage. Donal came on and spoke of the charity the evening was for. Gorta primarily concerns itself with Third World Aid, The evening's takings were being specially tagged for use in aiding homeless children in Zimbabwe. Then he brought back on what was, for me, the evening's discovery. Roisin Elsafty sings acapella ,‘sean nos' as the Irish call it. This slightly built girl with long black hair gave a truly mesmerising performance. The word "ethereal" only begins to describe it. After stunning us all, she bowed off the stage as Donal reappeared. At the same time from stage left a sort of oversized toast rack was wheeled on, laden down with something like six guitars. acoustic and electric...
Donal was thanking various personnel involved with the show truly the finale was on the way. He concluded by thanking "Milo," who was, apparently, the denim-shirted man who had brought on the guitars and was now dashing around the stage doing things with flexes and a white teapot, cup and saucer. Donal then truly put any fears I had to rest by introducing the evening's "main guest." With comments about how he had "started in the punk movement but was now involved in all types of music," he concluded by saying how delighted he had been when the guest had accepted an invitation to appear. Then with a sideways shout of "Milo — is he ready'?" we were asked to give a big welcome to ... Elvis Costello.
Striding on, Elvis was all smiles and looking good in brown thigh. length leather jacket over black shirt and pants. Beneath the black hat with a red feather in the side, the stubbly chin only reinforced his resemblance to art extra from a Guy Ritchie movie. I can't remember if he said anything beyond a brief "howya" — it was just so great to see him back on stage doing his own thing. This, mixed with relief from our recent anxiety, meant that we were going to be one very euphoric and rapt audience. Starting out with an electric guitar, he launched into ‘Daddy, Can I Turn This?', an account of seeming childish curiosity, somewhat similar to the Bobby Timmons/Oscar Brown Jr. ditty ‘Dat Dere'(check out Rickie Lee Jones' version on her Pop Life album). The voice sounded good and clear, even off-microphone (a technique which Elvis used regularly throughout the show).
Vicar Street is so small and acoustically perfect a venue that he was audible to all. Keeping it electric for "45" — sounding so catchy and clever yet again, truly a generation defining hit single when it comes out (soon please!) — he changed to acoustic, joking that he always does everything backwards, an obvious but ironic enough comment on the whole folkie "acoustic good/electric bad" vibe. As he continued with "I Dreamed of My Old Lover Last Night" and (guessed title) "That Girl Is Gone" the excitement level started to dip a bit as it became obvious that this was not going to be a Fleadh type "greatest hits" crowd pleaser. That was fine with me — a bonus really since I had an expectation that Elvis' contribution to the evening might be to join Lunny for a few songs from Spike and the like.
However, Elvis, showman that he is, perhaps realised that he had better "grit" the evening up a bit at this point, regaling us with one of the most provocative songs I've ever heard him do. "Spooky Girlfriend" (guessed title) is loaded with images regarding a need for submissive and downright kinky female companionship. Accepting it in the vein of the pop theatrics of (it's inspiration?) Eminem, it's a hoot, showing that Elvis can be as vicious as ever if he pleases. I can certainly see this lyric raising an eyebrow or two if it gets hyped effectively when it turns up on disc (again, soon please!). The song features a "doo-doo-doo" refrain which Elvis got us to join in with, commenting that we had passed the audition (a reference to the recent much-hyped Popstars thing on the telly).
Some people started shouting for songs and a particularly loud request for "I Want You" was met with a grimace and a comment that this evening was for new songs. However, after evocative performances of "Heart-Shaped Bruise" and "Alibi Factory" he relented somewhat. Saying he'd like to do a song of his that "someone from this town" did a great version of (a reference to Christy Moore) he did a beautiful reading of "Deportee." Hearing this paean to enforced economic emigration in the prosperous city that Dublin has become, and from its composer, was a nostalgic and thought-provoking moment. After a "goodnight" at 11 — what is it about Elvis and these fake show "endings"? — he came back for a delightful reading of the Beatles B-side "Yes It Is," a fond reminder of the great Coward Bros. version from the l980s. After much bowing he went into "Good Year for The Roses," by now succumbing entirely to the crowd's wishes and giving way repeatedly to the massed singing along.
Another fake ending. Lunny came on and urged us to demand more. We did. Surprise, surprise — he came back on, with Milo behind him holding up three fingers to the sound desk at the back of the venue. People were shouting song titles again. A request for "Tramp the Dirt Down" was greeted with the comment "haven't we got rid of her already?" getting a big cheer from those still not minded to forget Mrs Thatcher. From the back someone shouted "Iron Maiden"- which got a big laugh. "There's always one!" observed Elvis. He ploughed on with the less familiar stuff. "When I Was Cruel" was followed by two songs .".. I recorded for a movie which never came out," a comment on the troubled distribution of the Prison Song project. He spoke of the songs — "The Teacher's Tale" and "The Public Defender's Tale" — being about two of the more put upon professions. Mention of the former got a big cheer — Irish teachers were on strike as he spoke — while the reference to lawyers drew a slightly less enthusiastic response.
Finally, Elvis decided to send us off home with a real crowd pleaser. The simple, unaffected reading of ‘Alison' featured another mass sing-along, returning us, appropriately, to the evening's folk theme. After witnessing this hour-long show, I can safely report that Elvis is still "keeping it real" or whatever phrase you choose to indicate that his music is as powerful and relevant as ever. His parting line was even better to hear: "Maybe I'll see you all here again later on in the year You betcha, Elvis. You betcha.