Montreal Gazette, June 17, 1999

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Elvis Costello: king of the unexpected


Mark LePage

A former employee of the Albert Hall in London, fired the week before, attended Elvis Costello's show with pianist/keyboardist Steve Nieve. He was disgruntled, the contemporary euphemism for armed-to-the-teeth, but this man had come to fire off a request.

"He heckled relentlessly for 'Tramp the Dirt Down,'" says Costello. "I don't know whether you know that song..."

Vitriolic jeremiad of Thatcher's England, off the Spike album, 1989, sure. "When England was the whore of the world / Margaret was her mad-aahhh-mm..." Despite the sacked man's obvious agony, and the song's bitter resonance, they didn't play it. The story is meant less to warn fans bringing requests to Friday's show than to remind them their expectations are wholly misplaced and routinely frustrated when dealing with Costello.

Without going all the way back, a quick read of the career since Spike would include the crowded Mighty Like a Rose, a string quartet song cycle called The Juliet Letters, a trumpeted "return to form" with Brutal Youth, cover albums of his own and others' songs, a reunion tour with the Attractions, collaborations with '90s glam brat Wendy James, jazz iconoclast Bill Frisell and most recently with '60s arranger and current po-mo pet Burt Bacharach. The performing career being a logical extension of the recorded one, he follows guest appearances at five recent Bob Dylan gigs with his own minimalist duo tour with Nieve.

"I said 'What about we try and do a show just based on ballads — just piano songs.'" Calling from his south-side Dublin home on a brief stopover between projects, Costello is serious, garrulous, not given to easy laughter, but attentive and articulate. He and Nieve played European dates. There was no disgruntlement.

"It was a lot more soulful, a lot closer to people. And obviously the whole reason that the band (the Attractions) doesn't exist any more is that it wasn't really sparking the way I wanted it to."

And so he pulled them over and left the keys in the ignition. Speaking with Costello (or, more properly, getting a word in edgewise) renders his career as a series of bumps in the road, after he'd jackhammered them in himself A protean Anglo-Irish Neil Young minus the hippie ancestry, he is encyclopedic about pop history. When enthusiastically responding to a cue about his support for Ron Sexsmith ("an inexhaustible supply of wonderful melodies") he drew the lineage back to Jesse Winchester, a family resemblance few Canadians could pick out.

His recent purchases include Tom Waits ("exquisite") and the RCA Duke Ellington anthology. He calls Glasgow "a lively town," approaches a German tour with "a degree of trepidation," and pleads guilty to having had "something to do with" Rod Stewart's cover of Sexsmith's "Secret Heart." His edge is unblunted and his words mostly unminced.

He is also well aware that nostalgia is the natural byproduct of "career" or, more accurately, "body of work." Costello is not and has never been on a mission to deny his past, simply to be able to live with it and tailor his songs to fit the emotional measurements of a man in his 40s.

"I'm exactly double the age I was when I wrote some of those songs. A song like 'The Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes' was written by a 22-year-old guy in 10 minutes on a train, about the idea of 'What'll it be like when I get old, so I better grab this love while I can.'"

Now that he is that 22-year-old's projection, he can't imagine himself on the same train. The many millions of moviegoers who sent Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me leaping past Star Wars at the box-office will have noticed the cameo Costello shares with Burt Bacharach. Costello fans will be aware of the album, Painted From Memory, a collaboration begun four years ago in hotel rooms in California and New York. While Costello dismisses as a "fantasy" the teacher-pupil model some would like to impose on the partnership, you can hear his relish when he says Bacharach "never had much use for rock 'n' roll."

"He said I more than match him for obsession to detail." However, Bacharach would hold four-hour rehearsals for a two-hour show, and Costello wasn't going to sit around for that very long. Instead, during the Bacharach period, he and Nieve hooked up. Interestingly, he had little emotional background to sort out with the charter Attraction member. The two were never very close during the hellbent late-'70s, when Costello was an angry classicist among the punks. They never roomed together, and were doubtless surprised to find they had no longstanding grudges or lawsuits to untangle. Their rapport was based solely on work, and, as such, has survived and prospered.

So what will fans hear in Theatre St. Denis tomorrow? Certainly, some Bacharach will be decanted. Costello won't give away "surprises," but songs from the Attractions era will be on a playlist that might vary by as many as 15 songs from night to night. On the European dates, he found some fans carrying a nostalgia of more recent vintage — not for "the first three years of my career" as he puts it, but for the '90s songs. He expects to look into the audience and see "grown men weeping and women throwing roses." If the line reads like it was rehearsed, it hits all the right notes.

Elvis Costello and Steve Nieve's Lonely World Tour plays Theatre St. Denis tomorrow. Tickets cost $52 and $40.

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The Gazette, June 17, 1999


Mark LePage talks to Elvis Costello ahead of his concert with Steve Nieve, Friday, June 18, 1999, Theatre St. Denis, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

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