The first thing I noticed as I took my place in line on 6th Avenue: all of these people look way too old to be seeing a rock concert. I had to imagine this crowd presented the highest average age of any show ever seen at the Roseland. Which tells me two things: one, that Elvis' fans are fiercely loyal and two, that he, inexplicably, hasn't picked up many new ones. However, the latter may be based on specious logic; the relatively diminutive confines of the Roseland doubtlessly prevented the appearance of all but the most devoted and attentive of fans who bought what few tickets there were on the day they were released. Lucky me: one of the very few mailing lists this bright young fellow subscribes to is Lost Highway Records, who sent out Elvis' otherwise seemingly unpublicized tour dates in an e-mail.
We arrived at the theatre around 6:30. Not knowing the space, the floor configuration, or what kind of crowd to expect, I randomly chose this as the perfect time to arrive to not only get a good spot, but to avoid standing around outside for hours on end. However, as far as that goes, the weather was kind to us and we were treated to a bright, dry, brisk evening as we waited. We were perhaps three-quarters of the way down the block, and I guessed that we would get a good spot, but certainly be lost in the crowd. I did not take into account the age of those around me, and their penchant for comfort and convenience.
When the doors opened promptly at 7:00 (and I must say here: props to the Roseland for keeping a tight schedule all night) we made our way into the club behind at least two hundred other people – and when we got to the floor found, to our astonishment, that they had disappeared. I could see half a dozen people loitering on the floor, and another dozen had copped a sit in front of the stage with their backs against the barrier. I was so taken aback by this development that I actually had to say what would have been obvious to most people, and I told my wife, "I think we can just sit there like those people are doing, and be in the very front all night." Duh.
Up we went and took a seat in front of the stage, perhaps five feet stage-left of center. It was then we saw the twilight zone into which our aged companions had vanished: the balcony, evidently able to seat about 200, complete with theatre seats and waitresses. I would envy them only the waitresses. In the next hour we sat and had drinks and watched the club fill with more of the most unlikely of concert-goers: 40s-50s, middle-class, working folks, mostly couples. The occasional younger type would show up here or there, but I would not be surprised if I, at 34, was the second- or third-youngest person in the entire audience, which must have numbered about 1500.
At 8:00 sharp, the house darkened and an adorable little boy named Sondre Lerche took the stage. He slung an adult-sized Gretsch over his shoulder and proceeded to play a type of jazz pop in a vocal style reminiscent of Rufus Wainwright, Nick Drake and Donovan.
While the back of the house and the balcony chatted away through most of his 45-minute solo set, the child managed to charm the faithful on the floor with his lilting voice, his laid-back manner, and his courage in deftly working through his set whilst doubtlessly being nearly crushed beneath the weight of that magnificent Gretsch.
Slinging age-inspired jibes at the obviously much older audience and holding at bay a single, rather lackadaisical, heckler, the diminutive Lerche played songs he assured us were from one or the other of his apparently two CD's, with only an occasional check of the oversized man's watch dangling from his wrist – evidently to assure himself he was not running over his time, and doubtlessly as he knew his shoulder would only support the leviathan Gretsch for so long. At the end of the night I would, inexplicably, buy his CD. He was at the stand hawking them himself, and when I complimented him on a good set, the little fucker called me "sir."
At precisely 9:00 PM, the house lights dimmed and Elvis Costello entered from stage right. Dressed in a black suit, a blue-and-red tie fronted by a small gold fleur-de-lis medallion hung on a string, and a pair of mirror silver loafers, the man was the very image of himself. Without any fanfare, he and the Imposters (keyboardist Steve Nieve, bassist Davey Faragher, and drummer Pete Thomas) launched into the classic "Next Time 'Round" – opening what would be a virtually non-stop two-and-a-half hour rock 'n' roll meltdown featuring most of his newest album The Delivery Man, a handful of well-known singles, and a smorgasbord of more obscure album tracks from across his entire library.
Sitting up close, it was easy to tell what material still moved Costello, and what he was playing as a working musician entertaining his fans. It was clear that, while he doesn't seem to have any animosity for the old hits, he doesn't have any real inspiration for them, either. Thus big crowd-pleasers like "Radio, Radio," "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love and Understanding" and "Watching the Detectives" tended to fall flat compared with much of the rest of the show. There were a number of noteworthy exceptions, mostly among the lesser-known tracks like "Kinder Murder," "Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over)," and what can only be described as an unimaginable, blisteringly pained, driving rendition of "I Want You" that practically made this listener's head explode; one of the high points of the night.
But the real show was in the new material, as well as a number of country standards that Costello visited some years ago on his Almost Blue LP, and that have obviously resurfaced in his consciousness. Playing all but three songs off the new album, Costello lit up the stage with his own brand of country-influenced pop, transcending both genres while demonstrating the skill of a seasoned musician along with the perspective of a man of 50.
And make no mistake: this dude can rock. The album, in all its brilliance, does not come close to the unfettered passion and fury behind the live performance of such numbers as "Needle Time," "Button My Lip" and "Bedlam," all of which threatened to set the club on fire. The languid "Country Darkness" and "Either Side of the Same Town" benefited from a similar boost, with Costello's vocal prowess driving the lilting lyrics directly into the listener's chest and out their shoes.
Costello and the Imposters played a fairly straight-forward workingman's rock 'n' roll show: there were no special effects, no big movement routines aside from Costello occasionally walking to one side or the other of the stage to play a solo, and not a lot of chatter. At one point, after being handed his blonde Fender Telecaster by a stagehand, strumming a few notes and finding a broken string, he quipped, "All I have to do is look at the strings and they break." Plus, there was one bit of choreography when the Imposters stood in unison as Costello delivered a quick sermon supporting the name of the tour, "The Monkey Speaks His Mind," and inciting the crowd with an introduction to the album's most pop-oriented track, "Monkey to Man." Throw in the requisite mention of the name of the town and a reference to "the vast marijuana fields of Oregon," and you've pretty much got all the spoken words of the show.
Of course the show wasn't without its little surprises and altered lyrics. During "When I Was Cruel No. 2," he sang (seemingly by mistake), "I was a spoilt child then with a record to plug," then seemed to catch himself and finish "You were a shaven-headed seaside thug / things haven't really changed that much / but one of us is still getting paid way way way too much."
And we were also treated to the more biting side of Elvis during "Country Darkness" when he sang "She daydreams of inviting sins / there must be something more / the prison she sleeps in / the one with the open door."
Throughout the night, Costello would find times to move away from the microphone and sing a note or two entirely off-mic. I think if I had been situated farther back I may not have understood it; with the band playing full volume I don't know if he was audible during those times. It may have looked like he was stepping away and having to remember to get back to the mic to sing. However, standing up close, every note he sang was clearly audible, plus his intention seemed clearer.
It was as though he was looking for an opportunity to escape the confines of the microphone. He seemed to call to it, enticing it to listen to him, to come to him to get his voice. He seemed to move away at the very climactic moments of the song, almost teasing the mic with a note or two as he approached and stepped away. Hearing the sound of his own voice coming from the stage as the sound faded from the speaker was incredibly powerful – it thoroughly rehumanized this electronic rock star who blared away the rest of the night.
One got the feeling that Costello himself felt that there was something much more powerful at hand in these songs and in this room full of devoted fans, something that transcended the banality and intrusion of amplification and electronics. And being lucky enough to have been only five feet away from him I can tell you: he's right, as the final moments of the show would definitively reveal.
The crown jewel of the show came at the very end. I'd read in reviews of other shows (and seen on setlists) that every show closed with the beautiful ballad "The Scarlet Tide" from The Delivery Man. I'd also read that at times Costello sings at least part of this song off-mic. I'd seen him do something similar on the TV show "Austin City Limits" and I couldn't wait. Seeing him drift from the mic as much as he did throughout the show, I was certain it was coming. However, when he began the two-verse "The Scarlet Tide" he was in front of the mic. For the second verse, the band joined him and I was afraid my unamplified version would not happen.
But after the second verse and chorus were complete, the Imposters dropped out completely and the stage lights dimmed as Elvis took a few steps stage left into a warm orange spot and, with tattered Gibson in hand, mirror-shod feet planted firmly beneath his shoulders and his head held high, repeated the first verse and chorus of "The Scarlet Tide" off-microphone to a stunned and entirely silent crowd. Both the sound and the silence filled the hall. It was as though The Great Imposter himself had come out from behind his mask and spoken plainly to us all in his own true voice. The effect was incredible and this listener, for one, was moved to tears.
He stepped back to the mic to do one more time through the chorus with the Imposters, bowed, said thank you, and he was gone. Instantly the hall was filled with the requisite shouting and foot-stomping that precedes the requisite encore, but as soon as it had begun the house lights came up full and everyone knew it was over. After 27 years, Costello obviously knows how to put together an incredible show and doesn't need to fuck around with any of that nonsense. There was little complaint. There was clearly no doubt in anyone's mind they had just been treated to something far beyond what they could possibly have imagined before walking in the door: the master work of a virtuoso deeply immersed in his element.