A virtual marathon of concert-going last weekend found me wading through the crowds waiting to catch Elvis Costello in his one-night Palomino stand. At 8:00 p.m., Ray Campi and the Rockabilly Rebels kicked off the proceedings with a set of their good-timey music. Ray and his boys are real good. Now if only "Jumpin" Jerry Zacorski and the other guitarist would learn to tune their instruments, they'd be great.
A ten-minute break, and Elvis Costello decked out in a brand new pair of Tony Lama cowboy boots for the occasion took the stage. Costello has been recording in Nashville with George Jones; that fact, coupled with the evening's performance, showed that he's got genuine sensibilities about country music.
Four songs into the set, he brought on pedal steel guitarist John McFee (of the Norton Buffalo band) and launched into approximately a half-hour of country standards, including "If I Could Put Them All Together I'd Have You," and Jim Reeves' "He'll Have To Go" — the latter was done reggae style. The show ended exactly one hour later with "Alison" and a steaming version of "Mystery Dance."
Saturday, it was up to Santa Barbara to catch Mr. C at the Arlington Theater. In direct contrast to the Palomino bunch, the crowd milling around outside the Arlington were attired in earth shoes and love beads. Santa Barbara still has a real honest-to-goodness hippie culture, but on this night they dropped their laid-back posture for Costello's gig. Even the guy who asked me for spare change did so with some style.
A pleasant surpise was the opening act, The Rubinoos, who did some snappy originals, some oldies including the Beatles' "Please, Please Me," and the Ventures' "Walk Don't Run," and took a poke at punkdom in their own "Rock 'N' Roll Is Dead and We Don't Care." Any group who can make an awful song like the Seeds' "Pushin' Too Hard" work bears some watching.
After a brief intermission, Costello appeared onstage, dressed "casual" in a V-neck sweater, and launched into "Goon Squad." The 80-minute set consisted primarily of songs off his second and third albums. Costello's music actually works better in a larger room. Intelligent use of lighting, which pointed up the subtleties in his tunes, plus even a stronger sense of dynamics than at the Palomino, made this Costello's strongest performance to date.
Elvis has dropped a lot of the angry-young-man-pose but has sacrificed none of the energy or integrity of the material. Saturday night's performance was evidence that he's the best example in existence today of intelligent tunesmithing and arranging combined with raw power.
A quick jaunt down 101 and I was back at the Palomino just in time to catch Gail Davies, a new artist who was opening for Joe Ely. For my money, Davies has a better set of pipes than any of the other female songstresses around. Given a bit more polish, she could step up front very quickly.
Around midnight, Joe Ely, backed up by his band — which includes a very impressive steel, accordion and guitar lineup jumped onstage for his second show. People are having trouble categorizing Ely, and it's easy to see why. His music is a synthesis of blues, cajun, honky-tonk, pure country and straight-ahead rock 'n' roll. Though Ely has gotten virtually no airplay, and his records haven't sold particularly well, he had the crowd shouting out for requests and singing along right from the start. If Ely isn't a major star soon, you can blame the people who make up the radio playlists — who seem more concerned with categorizing music than listening to it.
As I drove home that night, I realized that it had been somewhat of a milestone weekend. Two nights of great music is all one needs to have one's faith restored. To top it all off, I got back in time to catch Jimmy Cliff and Van Morrison on Rock Concert. What more could anyone ask for?