The first sighting is a joy. Elvis and some chums are sitting clustered together in a small bunch of seats in the wide empty vastness that is the Royal Albert Hall, London at 5 pm last Monday afternoon. Elvis is wearing a black coat and the other four chaps are wrapped against possible English cold. It's quite warm, actually.
And they're sitting there, listening to a cassette playing over the pa of stuff Elvis has compiled, tracks by Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin. Elvis does the introducing: "James Burton". "Benmont Trench". "Jerry Scheff". "Jim Keltner". Good Lord.
Jim Keltner: used to know each other a little bit some 15 years back, when he was drumming with Joe Cocker. He's played with John Lennon to George Harrison to Ry Cooder to just about everybody. Brilliant drummer. Benmont Tench... well, we had our differences ten years ago, when this new group from Ireland called the Boomtown Rats supported Benmont's group Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers and vicious competitive hostilities broke out between the Paddies and the Yanks.
All forgiven now. Last time Benmont toured was all over America and Japan and Australia, backing Bob Dylan. Now this lanky bloke comes over with his hat on backwards and a straggle of a beard: T Bone Wolk. He looks cut from a mould not dissimilar to Tom Waits. Normally, he plays bass with Hall and Oates.
James Burton started off playing his guitar way back when in the Fifties with countrybilly star Bob Luman, then went to work twanging behind pop rocker Ricky Nelson. But he's best known for playing with Elvis — Elvis Presley, that is — from 1969 until Elvis' death. Plus James Burton guitared with one of the greatest country artists of all time, the late Gram Parsons.
This is Elvis Costello and the Confederates, his American band. I had the privilege of watching them for three consecutive nights at the Albert Hall and heard some of the finest music that's been my pleasure to come across. Ever.
The set, which varies from night to night, contains most of the material from Elvis Costello's King of America LP, on which all the chaps — apart from Benmont — played. Plus there's a hefty dose of r 'n' b covers from people like Ray Charles and Mose Allison and a dash of Buddy Holly. And Elvis does a bunch of stuff solo, just him and acoustic guitar, harmonica and voice.
James Burton leads into "The Big Light," that same pickin' sound that he used on Presley's live stuff, the same sound as "Mystery Train" or "My Baby Left Me" or "Suspicious Minds" on one of those live LPs. And round his neck he wears his gold pendant that reads "TCB" — Takin' Care of Business — that Presley gave him.
Jim Keltner sits behind an unassuming drum kit, not even on a podium and flicks out the beat seemingly effortlessly. No wonder George Harrison formed "The Jim Keltner Fan Club."
T Bone, still with his porkpie hat on backwards ("If it was good enough for Count Basie it's good enough for me") plays mandolin, acoustic guitar, accordion, dobro, piano and organ and does backing vocals, too. Benmont can't believe him: "When I heard there was going to be someone from Hall and Oates, I thought 'Oh God.' But he's incredible."
And Jerry Scheff, without so much as a blink, switches from standup acoustic bass to electric bass. This is skilled music, mature, yet bursting with controlled vitality.
Wednesday at 6.00 pm in the Albert Hall and Elvis and the Confederates are rehearsing with their special guest. Benmont Tench tells Van Morrison that he doesn't know the old Sonny Boy Williamson song "Help Me," so Van tells him to play the intro to Booker T and the MG's "Green Onions" instead. It sounds great.
When Elvis introduces Van that evening, the place erupts even more. They do "Jackie Wilson Says" and it's such a thrill to see Elvis and Van singing together, Van being pushed to his proper heights by these great players. And then it's into "Help Me" with Benmont on the organ and Elvis on harmonica riffin' off each other. Everyone's grinning. Ooh, my soul.
"I started in music to make a few bucks and meet a Beatle," T Bone is saving. "Tonight I did both." The object of T Bone's second ambition stands there, reeling at the strength of the band. "Those people don't know what they're getting" says George Harrison, and when he's asked to explain he says that none of the audience know about James Burton, Jim Keltner and co. Actually, George, all that track record stuff doesn't matter a damn as long as their music is brilliant. Which it is, folks.
But in the end, Elvis Costello is The Man. His performances are mesmeric, his singing so passionate and soulful, so damn moving. He's got a great new song called "Any King's Shilling," about his grandfather. You'll hear it.
In the wee hours of Thursday morning we're in the apartment of Steve Nieve, the keyboard player of Elvis' great group of the last ten years The Attractions. For the past few nights, Steve — like fellow-Attractions Pete Thomas and Bruce Thomas — has been in the audience, watching and learning... and enjoying. "You know," Steve is telling Jerry Scheff, "Elvis is... well, he's the best." And Jerry nods cos' he knows it too...