When Elvis Costello and the Imposters took the stage at Graceland last Friday night, the irony was palpable. As it should be, given that this other Elvis is a songsmith and wordsmith of subtle twists and turns of phrase. The fact that he's also a dedicated fan and historian of Memphis music only gave the irony a more heartfelt touch. This show was nothing if not soulful.
Indeed, when the lights went down and shadows gathered on the stage, the first sounds we heard were exhortations to give our hearts to Jesus and the ecstatic sounds of a genuine gospel band. Then the lights came up and we saw that was all simply a recording, and the band launched into the thundering tom toms of "Strict Time."
Given that this is the "Just Trust" tour, starting with a track from that LP was not a complete surprise. Nor was the follow-up, "Clubland," in which the haunts of music scene-makers are cast in a kind of sardonic Cuban son. It's a tune that allows consummate keyboardist Steve Nieve to shine, and shine he did, eclipsing even the glitter laden jacket and hat of Elvis himself.
The bandleader's whimsical outfit was just one manifestation of the playfulness he brought to the evening, perhaps inspired by the meta-irony of playing literally in the King's backyard. Dodges, feints, and witty asides were the order of the evening, and such looseness was a perfect foil to some of the thornier content of his back catalog.
Take, for example, song four, coming after a propulsive "Green Shirt." As Elvis said, "I once found myself sitting next to a woman, and I sang this to her..." With that, he launched into the evening's first nod to the King. Singing the chorus and song title plaintively, "Don't... Don't... Don't..." Elvis then abruptly cut off the tune with a curt quip, "So I didn't." Ba-dum-bum!
Later, he revealed that "the woman" was none other than Priscilla Presley, whom he met on a talk show, as he revealed in his generous between-song banter. Other bits of the King's history found their way into the set from then on: "Mystery Dance" gave way to a bit of "His Latest Flame;" the coda to "Alison" became a stylized interpolation of "Suspicious Minds;" and the old chestnut "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love & Understanding" even had a bit of "Mystery Train" thrown in.
Other gems of Memphis music history were also present: a full-on rendition of Johnny Cash's "Cry, Cry, Cry;" a quote from "Mr. Big Stuff" at the end of "Everyday I Write the Book;" and an especially gospel-drenched treatment of a Sam & Dave tune Costello put his stamp on decades ago, "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down."
If those references weren't entirely surprising, the new songs from this composer's composer certainly were, and they revealed a deeper Memphis influence than any lyrical quotations could. The first new, so far unreleased song was a "campaign song" in a gospel vein, with the chorus of "Blood and hot sauce!"
The second, "Face in the Crowd," revealed the provenance of the new material: "This is from a show coming your way," Costello explained, describing a live theater event he's collaborating on, based on the classic film of the same name. As the songwriter noted, "It'll be like The Sound of Music, with less Nazis."
Throughout the evening, the sound was a welcome improvement over the murk experienced at last year's Imposters show. And, if the front man himself was a bit winded at times by the stream of lyrics composed by his younger self, the band was sharp and on point. Kitten Kuroi and Briana Lee on background vocals seemed more integrated into the sound than last year, Davey Faragher on bass and vocal harmonies was better than ever, and original Attractions Steve Nieve on keys and Pete Thomas on drums rekindled the old driving intensity with aplomb. It was a spirited evening, in which Costello's vocal chops only got better and better. Once again, he showed that one can find a perfect balance between punk energy and musical craftsmanship, between history and innovation, between irony and soul.