"You have to come out to a record shop to hear a brand-new song," said Elvis Costello, raising an eyebrow and offering up an unreleased gem midway through his set at Amoeba Music in Hollywood Monday night. The statement was patently false — Costello's performance was streamed live on Amoeba's website — but it suited the evening's mood and the rock raconteur's new persona.
Costello is promoting Secrets, Profane and Sugarcane, a new album produced by the country-esque auteur T Bone Burnett and flavored with several varieties of Americana seasoning. This show's instrumentation — he played acoustic guitar, joined by Jim Lauderdale on the same instrument and Mike Compton on mandolin — spoke of Nashville, but the songs, as well as their singer's purple flim-flam-man costume and pencil-thin mustache, spoke of other locales and eras, from the antebellum Deep South to P.T. Barnum's Eastern Seaboard and beyond.
This stop was part of a classic stunt of which Barnum would have approved. At noon, Costello played at the Amoeba outlet in San Francisco. Then he and his mates hopped a plane for the night's gig in L.A.
The sets were reportedly very similar, with Southland fans getting a little added value: an extra new number at the encore, mixed in with a few verses of the Buddy Holly classic "Not Fade Away."
Of the fresh compositions, the first was a gallows tale that crossed the darkness of Johnny Cash with the narrative flair of Marty Robbins, very much in his current mode, while the second hinted at a future return to the spit-flinging rock he's made with his bands, the Attractions and the Imposters.
There was a Grateful Dead cover too, a raucous bluegrass version of "A Friend of the Devil." And Costello gave one nod to his loyalists with a swinging, bluesy reworking of his 1977 song "Blame It on Cain."
Mostly Costello highlighted the Sugarcane material, which reflects his love of the historical from several perspectives. "Red Cotton" was a dramatically rendered parlor tale of slavery and moral decay. "My All Time Doll" slinked along like a tune at last call in a smoky nightclub. The heartfelt (if slightly off-key) "Crooked Line," which he co-wrote with Burnett, is "the only true love song I've ever written where I didn't leave myself an escape hatch in the third verse."
Compton provided instrumental sparkle with his quick picking and bouncy runs, while Lauderdale stayed in a supporting role, giving fans of his own distinguished country career only one brief vocal, on "A Friend of the Devil."
Costello clearly relished his ringleader position. He told some jokes, held up a pair of pink "Ypsilanti Panties" he'd acquired at the noon show (a reference to a line in Sugarcane's title track), and tipped his fedora with a smile that suited the shady character he's now playing.
He also paid tribute to the beauty of the record store that hosted him — one of the few major shrines to "physical product" left in the U.S.
"I like the way you're arranged in straight lines, you're all in alphabetical order," he said to the fans cramming the store's aisles. "I see a few new releases over there — and over there, a few outtakes."
It was a knee-slapper, but clever — vintage Costello, classic Americana with a dry British twist. It set just the right tone for the latest stop on Costello's lifelong tour of pop's many expressions, one that rocks in a very classic way.