Elvis Costello once the snotty poet of punk, later collaborator with Burt Bacharach, has always kept us guessing, but his first-ever Knoxville show at the Tennessee Theatre last Thursday was of a different order altogether.
Weaving his classic, "Alison," seamlessly into that other Elvis's "Suspicious Minds" was one of the show's several surprises. His old Attractions keyboardist, Steve Nieve, playing the theremin on several numbers was another.
Belying recent complaints that the Tennessee's new beer-fueled audiences are obnoxiously drunk and rowdy, Costello kept the sold-out audience rapt, even when he stepped away from the microphone and sang part of "Scarlet Tide" a cappella, without amplification. No one in the sold-out theater hooted or whistled. As near as we could tell, for a minute or two, no one breathed.
But the most jaw-dropping moment came about halfway through the show, when Elvis took an uncharacteristic pause to announce an audience member's 41st birthday, remarking in his English accent that "some wicked things have happened in this city."
When he opened his next song, "I met a little girl in Knoxville, a town we all know well," some people screamed. And he sang the bizarre ancient murder ballad about the young man who, for no obvious reason, bludgeons his lover to death and throws her in the river. He sang the whole dozen stanzas of the ballad slowly, and without a lyric sheet.
The old folk song, of shadowy origins, was already old as the hills when it was a bluegrass hit for the Louvin Brothers more than 50 years ago. It has gotten some punk cred in recent years, when Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds started performing it.
When anthropologists determined that the human bones found on a South Knoxville riverbank a few weeks ago belonged to an adolescent girl who lived more than a century ago, we naturally wondered if maybe she was the one "with the dark and rolling eyes."