There may have been a picture of that other Elvis—the fellow who died while perched on his porcelain throne—taped to some equipment on the stage at Valentine’s, but the evening’s tribute was for the Englishman born as Declan MacManus, aka Elvis Costello. This Elvis has written some of the best songs of the last 25 years.
A benefit for the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation’s Campaign for a Landmine Free World, the show was organized by Albany’s own John Brodeur. If Costello is a genius, Brodeur is some kind of genius saint. The logistics of the show must have been nightmarish, but Brodeur was up to the task; more than 20 artists played songs spanning Costello’s entire career, in an impressive variety of styles, without duplications.
There were solo artists, bands and onetime supergroups assembled just for this performance. Interestingly, most of the solo singers (with guitars) tended to excel with the angry material. Carl Smith sang a biting version of "Green Shirt"; Rob Skane captured the sarcasm of "This Year’s Girl"; Michael Eck spit out the lyrics to "American Without Tears." John Faye and Cliff Hollis performed together, with Faye singing the ironic, sour "Shabby Doll," and Hillis the misanthropic "God’s Comic." Julia Brown tackled the stark "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror," and the New York City-based singer commanded everyone’s attention with her powerful performance.
Wendy Ip, a Canadian now living in New York City, sat at the electric keyboard to offer "Sulky Girl" and "God Give Me Strength." The latter tune, cowritten with Burt Bacharach, is one of the unknown gems of Costello’s songbook; it has the plaintive appeal of a classic 1960s love ballad, and Ip, paying close attention to the dynamics of the song, was great. At the other end of the spectrum, Jason Martin (and his electric guitar) made big wonderful noise on "King Horse." Martin took special pleasure in hollering the line "between tenderness and brute force."
The bands were equally superb. Steve Shiffman and the Land of Nod caught the downbeat feel of the war song "Shipbuilding" and the angry edge to the catchy pop of "Next Time Around." Mitch Elrod and band brought out the pure bile in "Brilliant Mistake," and found the inner Black Sabbath in an astonishing "Indoor Fireworks." (Elrod also proved again why he’s the best vocalist in town.) Brooklyn’s Trouble Dolls were fearsome and punk on "Lipstick Vogue"; Harrisburg’s Parallax Project shifted gears from punk to reggae impressively on "Opportunity"; Boston’s Paula Kelly and her quartet were precise and smart on the pop of "I Hope You’re Happy Now"; and Providence’s the Marlowes mined Costello’s country & western side on "Shoes Without Heels."
After the 20 or so artists finished, the big show still wasn’t over. John Brodeur and the Suggestions were going to perform the album My Aim Is True in its entirety. I wandered downstairs to see what was going on. According to plan, this was where the bands were playing their own material; unfortunately, this was the first time I had thought to check this out. (Hey, I was there to hear the Elvis tunes.) The Marlowes were performing for a handful of people scattered around the bar, and they were excellent: John Larson was singing his heart out, as if the place were packed.
Back upstairs, John Faye was singing "Alison" with Brodeur and company. It was soulful and straightforward, in perfect keeping with excellence of the entire evening.