Someone or something has lit a fire under Elvis Costello. The artist returned to the New York area for a trio of shows recently that found he and his band, the Imposters, performing new material as if it had been in their repertoire for ages. Old favorites were rattled off with a vigor usually reserved for only the freshest selections that excite a veteran performer.
The area stint opened on June 18 with the first of two nights at New York's intimate Beacon Theatre. The 25-song set was heavy with songs from Costello's latest Island album, When I Was Cruel, from the opening "45" to the final encore's "Episode of Blonde." Along the way, the Imposters — former Attractions members Steve Nieve (keyboards, vibraphone) and Pete Thomas (drums), and Cracker's Davey Faragher (bass) — were augmented on several tracks by New York-based horn players Roy Nathanson, Frank Lacy, Jay Rodriguez, and Curtis Fowlkes to flesh out the chaos of the sometimes complicated arrangements of the album versions.
Among those were a bombastic rave-up of "Spooky Girlfriend" with Lacy on trombone, and his switch to trumpet and flugelhorn for mesmerizing trips through "Dust" and "15 Petals" with Nathanson on also sax, Rodriguez on tenor sax, and Fowlkes on trombone. Also notable was a rendition of "When I Was Cruel No. 2" with its prerecorded samples and Nieve's frantic additions on several keyboards, the call-and-response renditions of "Tart" and "Alibi," as well as the pop glory of "Tear Off Your Own Head (It's a Doll Revolution)."
Those not familiar with the new stuff weren't disappointed. The 75-minute main set included such Costello classics as "Waiting for the End of the World," an abstract reading of "Watching the Detectives," "(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea," a turgid "Clowntime Is Over" with Nieve's gospel-infused organ, "The Beat," and a particularly bitter "Radio, Radio."
The evening was seamless, with three encores feeding into the adoring audience's frenzy for more. "You Belong to Me," a hasty "Pump It Up," and "Lipstick Vogue" were all trotted out before the show-closing haunting stalker tale of "I Want You" left those paying attention aghast. So much cannot be said for night two.
Sound problems plagued the show from the beginning, with the full PA shorting out in the middle of set opener "45." Costello was visibly annoyed as the band played on anyway during "Mystery Dance" and "Clubland," but he cut the latter song short amid loud shouts to "fix the sound." Initially, he said the band would leave the stage while the problem was attended to, but instead he strapped on an acoustic guitar and performed "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" at the front of the stage without any amplification.
Once done with that rare treat (the audience having belted out the "oh, that's too bad" call-and-response line), the full lineup returned to the stage and slowly marched back into top form with impassioned readings of "Man Out of Time" and "Tart." The new songs (in particular, "15 Petals") once again burned brightly with horn accompaniment from Nathanson, Lacy, Rodriguez, and Fowlkes, but off-puttingly peppy versions of crowd favorites such as "Radio, Radio" and "Pump It Up" only detracted from such nuanced delights as the stinging "Alibi" and "When I Was Cruel No. 2."
Two final encores thankfully ended the show on better footing: the tense "Beyond Belief" and, again, Costello's ultimate bitter "love" song, "I Want You." It goes to show that all the material in the world can't overcome an uncooperative sound system, but on this night, Costello and company rolled with the punches about as well as could be expected.
The third area show visited Asbury Park, N.J.'s Convention Hall, where Costello joined Bruce Springsteen to stroll through "Alison" during the former's December holiday charity concerts. Elvis noted that during that visit he was impressed with the locals' tenacity in its attempts to revive the struggling seaside town, prompting him to schedule the gig between visits to New York and Philadelphia.
Perhaps blowing off the steam of frustration from the previous night's issues, the band tore the roof off of the venue, turning out a two hour-and-20-minute performance that included an impromptu seven-song second encore where Elvis called out songs to the band. While the venue's acoustics are shaky at best, the bouncing sounds lent themselves to the show's rowdy feel, and no doubt egged Costello onward.
Those acoustics, however, did not treat well the crowded arrangements of songs such as "15 Petals" and "Dust" — horn parts here filled in by Nieve's myriad keyboards. For all the guest players added to the free flowing vibe of the Beacon shows, muddied ricocheting echoes and layers of sound detracted from the Convention Hall performance.
Even though many were no doubt hoping Springsteen would return the favor with an appearance (he didn't show), no one left disappointed as Costello ripped through such favorites as "Oliver's Army," "No Action," "My Little Blue Window," "Beyond Belief," "Man Out of Time," and "Complicated Shadows." Costello also reprised "Alison," although not with the ending snippet of "Tears of a Clown" as has become familiar in recent years. Instead Costello teamed it up with another Elvis' song, Presley's "He'll Have To Go" to marvelous effect.
Also notable was the inclusion of "The Judgement," a new song written by Costello and wife Cait O'Riordan (ex-Pogues) for Solomon Burke's latest Fat Possum release, Don't Give Up On Me (which, incidentally, was produced by singer/songwriter Joe Henry, who opened all three shows).
In the end, Costello and the Imposters triumphed over sound and equipment problems, and showed few signs of the lethargy that many acts encounter towards the end of a leg of any tour. Each night the setlist was mixed up — ranging from 25 to 30 songs — with a total of 45 different numbers played across the three shows. The excitement generated within the audiences of these shows will surely spread, and hopefully entice others to take in the rarely disappointing live Costello experience as this tour winds around the world and back to North America through November.