The show started around 7:30 with opening act Laura Cantrell. The audience was clearly not prepared for country songs, though a vocal minority egged the band on with occasional hoots and hollers. The left side of the floor seating (where I was) tended toward polite applause. Overall, my impression of Cantrell was she had a decent voice that she rarely tested the range of on mostly average country songs (with appropriate twang).
The highlights were the title track from her latest album, "When The Roses Bloom Again," and the rocking "Conqueror's Song." "Roses" has a story attached to it, which she told well. Her website says it "is a cover of an outtake from the Wilco/Billy Bragg collaboration Mermaid Avenue, that was dropped from the album of Woody Guthrie-penned lyrics when it was discovered that the song was actually copyrighted by A.P. Carter of the Carter Family."
The merchandise table was selling Cantrell's discs, as well as autographed copies of Cruel Smile. Though there's no doubt which people shelled out more cash for, I hope she got a few new fans tonight.
After a break for equipment removal/setup, Elvis and the Imposters took the stage at about 8:30. Before they appeared, the speakers blared parts of what I can only describe as a yodeling operatic version of the "William Tell Overture." I could see Elvis through a break in the curtains to the left side of the stage, and he seemed to be grinning while this was playing. I certainly got a chuckle out of it.
After a couple of songs, Elvis greeted the crowd and acknowledged how long it had been since his last stop in Pittsburgh (the audience corrected his guess of 1987 with 1989). Considering the 13-year absence, I imagine a large portion of the crowd were too young to have attended his last show there. That visit in support of Spike was a couple of years before I got turned on to his music. I was strictly into the Beatles in high school, and only warmed to Elvis around the time of The Juliet Letters.
In the interim, I've seen Elvis in Boston several times (before returning to Pittsburgh). The first of those shows was during the Attractions' tour for All This Useless Beauty. The rest were Costello/Nieve gigs at a free outdoor concert, the Fleadh Festival, and a stop at the Orpheum. This performance was considerably louder than any of those (the Attractions show was in an outdoor pavilion, and I sat well back from the stage). While I didn't have front-row seats like I did for the Orpheum show (where I first heard a couple of When I Was Cruel tracks), I definitely suffered more inner ear damage this time around.
The set didn't get quiet for any length of time until "The Judgement" (introduced with a story about the protagonist facing a jury of eight women and ... four women in the Court of Love). Most people just weren't familiar with this track recorded by Solomon Burke recently. Luckily, "I Can't Stand Up for Falling Down" and "Miracle Man" got people out of their seats again, at least until "Soul For Hire" slowed things down until the end of the set.
Before "Indoor Fireworks," Elvis commented on being in a "F---ing gym" and needing someone to build a theater for them to play in. Considering the raucous material that dominated the show, the home building of the Duquesne University men and women's basketball teams seemed strangely appropriate, harkening back to Elvis' early years touring the States.
About the time Elvis was playing "Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down" (I wonder if he played this one to reward the country fans who gave it up for Cantrell) and "Girls Talk," he seemed to become increasingly annoyed with something, often motioning to someone off to the right of the stage, culminating in a brief conversation with a crew member, and eventually a microphone change before "Tart." After that, he had no complaints.
Throughout the show, he playfully "attacked" the audience in the center floor sections with thrusts of his guitars during licks. Steve Nieve was almost never still long enough to catch a breath, constantly attacking his various keyboards and sound-effects machines as if he were a crazed kung-fu film star. Overall, the feel of the concert was playful and a touch violent — just right for a night of smoldering rock 'n' rhythm.
A number of people in the upper-level seating started to leave after the first encore, clearly unfamiliar with Elvis' habit of playing a minimum of two encores at each venue (and if you're lucky, three). Alas, Pittsburgh didn't get a third encore, but still ended up with a solid 25 numbers in a little under two hours. (My wife and I were walking to the parking garage by 10:30.)
The best moments of the encores came during the string of well-known rockers in encore 2 ("Watching the Detectives," "Radio, Radio," and "Pump It Up"). Elvis introduced the band before "Pump It Up," and again toward the end of "I Want You." The latter found Elvis alternating between vicious abuse of his guitar and dangerous embrace of his microphone, menacingly whispering most of the final verses.
Though I was disappointed to have missed out on his Chet Baker-ish reading of "Almost Blue" (featured in several recent shows appended to one song or another) and my wife would have liked a rendition of "Waiting For the End of the World," the show was thoroughly satisfying, and just the sort of rock-it-out night I needed.
At one point early in the show, Elvis picked up a black hat — of the type he often wears nowadays — thrown onstage by a fan, examined it for a moment while considering putting it on, and remarked that by now we should know "I have a bigger head than that." Clearly, Elvis is much more humble than he likes to let on. If his head is, indeed, bigger than most, it is only fitting for such a marvelously demented talent. Bravo Elvis — I hope you make good on your promise to return to the 'Burgh sooner next time.