Elvis Costello's performance at Nashville's historic Ryman Auditorium last night was one of the most powerful and strangest gigs I have ever seen... a mesmerizing high wire act that had a blazing Costello powering through a two-hour plus performance of songs covering his entire career as well as pretty much his entire new album.
I've seen a lot of shows where artists seem almost hesitant about debuting new material but Costello dove into his fresh album last night with a ferocious confidence that I know probably left a lot of the near capacity audience stunned, but which I found positively thrilling.
I haven't been able to get the, as of right now, vinyl exclusive Momofuku but if last night's presentation of the songs off of it are any sign then the album will end up as one of Costello's classics... savagely raw, subversive and sonically jam-like at times, the new songs are go-for-the-throat stunners with special note going to the furious and lengthy tracks "Turpentine" and "Go Away" as well as The Kinks' Something Else-era sounding "Harry Worth" and "Mr. Feathers." After hearing Costello and The Imposters roar through these tracks last night, the new album is at the top of my must-buy list.
The gig itself started out with a spirited and well played mostly acoustic opening set from June Carter Cash's daughter Carlene. I'm certainly not an authority on modern country music, but Carter is clearly incredibly talented and her opening set consisting of songs from her new album as well as older tracks by herself and her family was very engaging and at times quite moving. She shared quite a few stories concerning her family and her own personal problems and she came across as a very genuine and honest person... it was a very enjoyable opening set that lasted just past the fifty-minute mark.
Costello's set and his whopping three encores was played with such a wild abandon that I am actually having trouble remembering everything he played. I am looking forward to seeing the final setlist but highlights that have stuck with me were two tracks off Imperial Bedroom, "Beyond Belief" and "Man Out Of Time," the surprising choices "Clown Strike" and "Indoor Fireworks" and an angry reading of "The River In Reverse" which was downright savage in its delivery.
Fan favorites ranging from "Pump It Up" to "Alison" to "What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding" were also played to great effect and snatches of The Jam's "In The City" and The Who's "The Kids Are Alright" were heard as well, which made me feel like I was getting a neat listen as to what songs were rushing through Costello's consciousness as he was pounding out this bruising set.
The highlight of the main set before the encores was a lovely reading of The Velvet Underground's "Femme Fatale," which garnered a standing ovation and shouts of "Lou!!!" from much of the audience. Seeing Costello perform a track by my other favorite songwriter was downright haunting and I'll not forget it anytime soon.
The encores are where things got really intense. Joining Costello and The Imposters on stage were "Farmer" Dave Scher from Beachwood Sparks on steel guitar and California guitar players Johnathan Rice and Jonathan Wilson. These three players added an intense cosmic hippie vibe to the evening that Costello was clearly getting a kick out of and the sound this band along with The Imposters made proved absolutely massive, with "Turpentine" feeling like it was going to make The Ryman collapse in on itself. Of all of Costello's musical influences, the ones that are most rarely mentioned are the many free form Psychedelic groups from the mid-sixties to the early seventies who inspired him (Costello did after all include several Grateful Dead albums and Jefferson Airplane's searing Crown Of Creation on his list of essential works a few years back) and seeing him on stage with these younger musicians really brought that part of him out and it was mind-blowing to watch...
I am a bit exhausted from the show (so excuse the sloppier than usual writing here) and am going on just a few hours sleep but I will include the final setlist here as well as review links when they start to pop up. Of the several times I have seen Costello live, this show was the most thrilling in just how daring it was. Like The Kinks "Last Of The Steam-Powered Trains" (a song that kept occurring to me as I was watching this last night), this isn't an artist who is going to run out of steam anytime soon... totally reenergized and still vital, the Elvis Costello of 2008 appears to be at his absolute peak although I wouldn't put it past him to somehow get even better.