New Jersey Star-Ledger, June 10, 2009

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Elvis Costello brings country sounds
to Count Basie Theatre

Matthew Oshinsky

Performing at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank Tuesday night, Elvis Costello mentioned that he had an opportunity to perform with the late Count Basie himself, in 1983. It didn't go well. It went so bad, in fact, that he has paid a lot of money over the years to keep the tape in the vault, he joked.

Since that incident, though, Costello has changed musical styles countless times, and worked with everyone from Burt Bacharach to the chamber group the Brodsky Quartet. And he rarely has embarrassed himself again. His latest project is one of his boldest: he hired master country-bluegrass musicians to back him on his new album, Secret, Profane and Sugarcane, and kicked off his tour with them at the Basie.

The six-piece backing band — Jerry Douglas on dobro, Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Dennis Crouch on upright bass, Mike Compton on mandolin, Jeff Taylor on accordion and Jim Lauderdale on acoustic guitar — was billed as the Sugarcanes. Costello played, mostly, acoustic guitar, and the musicians stood around him (three on one side, three on the other) throughout the show.

There were some opening-night problems, including a muddy, bass-heavy sound mix and a do-over of one song's start after Costello realized he was playing the wrong guitar. Also, the emphasis on the Secret, Profane and Sugarcane material — he played 11 of the 13 songs — made some crowd members restless, so he might want to think about cutting a few as the tour goes on.

But overall, the experiment worked. The musicians backed him with casual virtuosity; Douglas took the most solos, and Lauderdale added vital harmony vocals. The new band doesn't back Costello into a corner, but give him new avenues to explore. The arrangements often had a touch of old-timey swing, or cabaret torchiness, or even a little rock 'n' roll muscle.

Costello resurrected some long-dormant songs from his catalog, revamped some more familiar ones, and sprinkled in a few covers, too. Few musicians would dare to reinvent themselves so thoroughly at the age of 54; at the very least, this was an opportunity to see a Costello show like no other.

The biggest surprises were slowed-down, plaintive reimaginings of one of Costello's most famous pop songs, "Everyday I Write the Book," and one of his signature rockers, "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes." He also played his own honky-tonk weeper "Stranger In the House," which he once recorded with George Jones; and a version of Jones' "The Race Is On" that was so fast and spirited it verged on rockabilly. Other covers included Merle Haggard's "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down" and Costello's folky take on the Velvet Underground's "Femme Fatale" (included as a bonus track on some versions of Secret, Profane and Sugarcane).

Costello's own "Blame It On Cain" had a new, loping beat, and his "The Delivery Man" was delivered with priceless melodrama. Not surprisingly, Costello also emphasized material from his 1986 roots-rock album, King of America, performing "Brilliant Mistake," "Little Palaces," "Our Little Angel," the tortured "Indoor Fireworks" and an impressively stately "American Without Tears."

Highlights from the Secret, Profane and Sugarcane material included the sweet love song "The Crooked Line," performed as breezy country-rock; and the comic "Sulphur To Sugarcane," where Costello built risque rhymes around city names like Poughkeepsie and Ypsilanti.

"If I could find a piano / Here in Bloomington, Indiana / I would play it with my toes / Until the girls all take their clothes off," he sang, adding one more style to the long list of those he has touched on, throughout his career: vaudeville.

Costello discusses the new album, his interest in country music and other subjects here.


The Star-Ledger, June 10, 2009

Matthew Oshinsky reviews Elvis Costello and the Sugarcanes, Tuesday, June 9, 2009, Count Basie Theatre, Red Bank, NJ.


2009-06-10 New Jersey Star-Ledger photo 01 jb.jpg
Photo by Jennifer Brown/Star-Ledger.


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