Melody Maker, November 22, 1986

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Melody Maker


The King in America

David Fricke

It was inevitable. In the middle of a rousing "Clubland," the Attractions going full steam ahead, Elvis Costello suddenly broke into a quick excerpt of The Drifters' "On Broadway," putting especially hearty emphasis on the line "And I won't quit 'til I'm a star / On Broadway."

The Broadway Theatre is, in fact, on Broadway. Mae West shook her tailfeather there in the Thirties, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson tapdanced on its stage in the Forties. By the time Costello hit the boards for the first of five sold-out nights at the Broadway, he was already a star. But this special series of concerts was a triumph nevertheless. Costello — with the Attractions, his King Of America Confederates and the Spectacular Spinning Songbook in tow — was here to showcase 10 years worth of singing and songwriting. The shows were billed as "Costello Sings Again." And sing he did, again and again and again, picking tunes from newly every album he's made as well as songs he didn't write or has yet to record.

The first night was basically a Greatest Hits spectacular. Costello and the Attractions, playing together here for the first time in two years, sounded like they'd never been apart. They hit the stage practically in mid-chord, giving "Accidents Will Happen" a swift kick that carried straight through "The Angels Want To Wear My Red Shoes," a vicious "Watching The Detectives" and finally braked to a halt after "You Belong To Me." This was vintage aggro-Elvis, the man who cut a Sherman-like swath across America in late '77 with 50-minute sets of non-stop adrenalin. During his scratch-and strangle guitar solo in the dark troubled-lust blues "I Want You," one of several angry blasts from Blood & Chocolate, Costello furiously paced the stage, kicking the PA stacks in apparent frustration.

Periodically, Costello would light up the special "Request" sign at the foot of the stage, that was the signal for members of the audience to shout out favourite Costello songs as loud as they could. (One resourceful fan sailed a paper airplane with his request right past Steve Nieve's head.) The results of this straw poll were interesting: "No Action," "New Lace Sleeves," "I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea." But the special moments were not all hits. "Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head" came complete with a playful psychedelic coda borrowed from the Beatles' "It's All Too Much." And the band's striking arrangement of "Jack Of All Parades" from King Of America eloquently proved the premise of this whole series, that Costello's swelling song catalogue defies easy classification, transcending sound and genre with dramatic and surprising results.

That was immediately apparent on the second night when an Attractions-less Costello opened with a raging acoustic version of "Tokyo Storm Warning," periodically interrupting the song to explain a particularly funny image. In fact, Elvis was practically conversational through the entire show, exchanging quips with the audience between songs. And the songs themselves were a jackpot of surprises — "Green Shirt," the B-side "Heathen Town," the Psychedelic Furs' "Pretty In Pink." Even an energetic stab at the Hollies' "King Midas In Reverse" ("my new theme song").

The Coward Brothers, a couple of Costello and T Bone Burnett lookalikes, performed a brief reunion set that didn't include their hit "The People's Limousine," but did conclude with a raucous take of "Twist And Shout," complete with a go-go dancer from the audience. After the smoke cleared, Costello was back with the real T Bone Burnett and the Confederates„ consisting mostly of the musicians from his King Of America LP. Their solid rhythms, James Burton's diamond-sharp lead guitar and earthy decorative touches (sax, percussion, accordion) made King Of America gems like "Brilliant Mistake" and "American Without Tears" sound like Elvis backed up by a revved-up Eighties reincarnation of The Band, while Costello singlehandedly turned the torch song "Poisoned Rose" into a blazing fire with his screaming heartbreak rage.

"It feels like a ballad night," Costello remarked before stepping into "Poisoned Rose" again on the third night. Indeed, except for on energetic blitz of about half a dozen R&B and country-jump tunes with the Confederates at the end of the show (including a "Glitter Gulch" that roared along like a runaway rockabilly train), Elvis was in a pensive mood most of the evening.

He dropped a verse and chorus of John Lennon's "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away" into the middle of a solo acoustic "New Amsterdam." At the piano, Costello glided into "Almost Blue" with a soft loving touch and then belted out the sorrow of "Just A Memory." Later, he turned the sorrow into bittersweet when he dedicated Bob Dylan's "I Threw It All Away" to "some friends of mine in a big black building uptown," a not-so-cagey reference to CBS, his American record company.

There was also a strange, unsettling feeling, a faint smell of candy-coated cynicism, about the next evening's three-hour blowout, the long awaited Spectacular Spinning Songbook. Costello has occasionally used TV game shows as a reference point for human foible ("Glitter Gulch" is a recent example). These empty-headed spectacles of flakey Hollywood glitz and falsely raised hopes effectively summarise everything he despises about American culture and the media in general. Still, Elvis' Songbook soiree with the suitably attired Attractions — Steve and Pete in military band brocade, Bruce in a crushed-velvet, bell-bottomed tuxedo — was an unqualified gas simply because it was so relentlessly funny, a delightful mixture of powerful Costello performances, audience enthusiasm and wholesome game show corn.

The Songbook itself, a tasty mix of both popular and cultish Costello tunes along with wily-chosen covers like "Ferry Cross The Mersey" and Tom Petty's "American Girl," looked like a giant parasol ringed by carnival lights. After spinning the wheel, audience members had the choice of dancing to their selection in the gilded go-go cage at stage right or sipping a Gatorade in the makeshift Sunset Lounge set up in front of Steve Nieve's keyboards. If in fact the Songbook setup was an elaborate practical joke on Yankee gullibility, it didn't work. Most of the fuss who elected to shake some booty in the go-go cage were wonderfully unselfconscious, dancing with a liberated air that appeared to inspire Costello into some of his best workouts of the whole week including a viciously throttled "Uncomplicated" and "Ferry" going into a vigorous "Tiny Steps."

Costello also had a good taste in guest hosts. David Johansen, appearing in the guise of his saloon-singing alterego Buster Poindexter, brought the requisite amount of comic smarm to the proceedings. Bearish bespectacled smartmouth Penn Jillette, a close personal friend of the Residents and half of a hot off-Broadway New Wave magic act called Penn & Teller, hosted a few spins of the Songbook as well. He also dared to get rank with Elvis himself, shaking him by the collar and demanding (a) to know if he was going to pay taxes on all the money he was making in New York at these shows, and (b) that Elvis "play some fucking Prince."

Which Costello did. He and the Attractions gave "Pop Life" an extraordinary thrashing, totally overhauling Prince's genteel study of pop-stars-under-glass with steel-claw fury. If this was a staged bit, it was done with a scary authenticity. Jillette looked like he was going to throw Costello over his shoulder and haul him over to the nearest Internal Revenue office. After he demolished "Pop Life," Elvis looked like he was ready to make a meal out of Jillette next. A vivid theatrical finish to a totally "wow" evening.

However, Night Five, a Blood & Chocolate evening with Elvis and the Attractions, was anything but anticlimactic. Without uttering so much as a hello, Costello come out and slapped the audience silly with a volcanic blast of "Tokyo Storm Warning." If his extended acoustic tour through the song on the second night made it seem like a cynical apocalypto-variation on Dylan's "Desolation Row," this electric rip through Costello's shopping list of universal absurdity (a Falkland Islands holiday, Japanese Jesus robots) sounded more like "Highway 61 Revisited."

Other B&C jewels on the menu included "Battered Old Bird," "Crimes Of Paris" (featuring Cait O'Riordan on vocals) and the swinging, if somewhat acidic, "I Hope You're Happy Now," its rising chorus and Steve Nieve's carnival organ recalling the jaunty gallop of the Attractions' Armed Forces days. But nothing could compare with the reprise of "I Want You," as dramatic a script of rejection and sexual desperation as Costello has ever written. Essentially on emotionally tormented, graphically erotic rewrite of John Lennon's crunch-rock ode to desire on the Beatles' White Album, the song took on a new horrific new life, Costello's voice choked with rage and frightened impotency against a skeletal, stuttering Attractions arrangement.

The week might have ended with the extended high of Costello's impassioned encore tribute to ABBA (an unexpected cover of "Knowing Me, Knowing You"), a frenetic "Radio, Radio" and the hopeful, celebratory "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding," except that Costello came out one more time and forcefully led the Attractions, aided by the missus on vocals and inaudible guitar, into a no-one-here-gets-out-alive assault on "Poor Napoleon," a suicide mission of feedback, falling cinderblock guitar and railroad rhythm that included savagely barked snatches of John Lennon's "Instant Karma" and ended with a police-siren chorus of squealing amps as the band walked off in a huff.

Yet when he screamed Lesson's classic accusation — "What in the world you thinking of / Laughing in the face of love" — Costello was in a way summarising his own oeuvre. He may taunt and accuse, cry and plead. He'll even laugh at lovers' silly little quirks, but he never laughs at love itself. In nearly everyone of his songs, it is in fact the one thread that holds this crazy self-destructive world together. You gotta hold on tight no matter how much it hurts.

The fact that Costello writes and sings about human relationships over and over again without exhausting the possibilities is a testament to the timelessness of his subject. That he can also make it seem new again and again — over five nights, more than 100 different songs — is a testament to his talent. Costello Sings Again was by no means merely a show or a concert event. It was Costello's most comprehensive statement to date of his purpose and his achievements.

Long may he wail.

Tags: Broadway TheatreNew YorkThe AttractionsThe ConfederatesCostello Sings Again TourClublandOn BroadwayKing Of AmericaSpectacular Spinning SongbookAccidents Will Happen(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red ShoesWatching The DetectivesYou Belong To MeI Want YouBlood & ChocolateSteve NieveNo ActionNew Lace Sleeves(I Don't Want To Go To) ChelseaHome Is Anywhere You Hang Your HeadThe BeatlesIt's All Too MuchJack Of All ParadesTokyo Storm WarningGreen ShirtHeathen TownThe Psychedelic FursPretty In PinkThe HolliesKing Midas In ReverseThe Coward BrothersT Bone BurnettThe People's LimousineTwist And ShoutJames BurtonBrilliant MistakeAmerican Without TearsThe BandPoisoned RoseGlitter GulchJohn LennonYou've Got To Hide Your Love AwayNew AmsterdamAlmost BlueJust A MemoryBob DylanI Threw It All AwayCBSFerry 'Cross The MerseyTom PettyAmerican GirlUncomplicatedTiny StepsDavid JohansenBuster PoindexterPenn JillettePrincePop LifeBlood & ChocolateBattered Old BirdCrimes Of ParisCait O'RiordanI Hope You're Happy NowArmed ForcesI Want YouWhite AlbumABBAKnowing Me, Knowing YouRadio, Radio(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding?Poor NapoleonInstant Karma!

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Melody Maker, November 22, 1986

David Fricke reports on the Broadway Theatre stand of the Costello Sings Again tour, October 21, 22, 23, 24 and 25, New York City.


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Page scan.

Photo by Keith Morris.
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