Elvis Costello, the acidly articulate British rocker, came out thrashing Thursday on Jazz Fest's Gentilly Stage, scrubbing his Stratocaster like it was the Reagan/Thatcher era once more. Brows knit, a thin bemused smile on his unshaven face, wearing a Beetlejuice striped jacket, and furiously chewing gum like John Lennon, he blasted through, with barely a break between, "What's So Funny About Peace Love and Understanding" (by Nick Lowe), "Watching the Detectives," "Mystery Dance," and "Radio, Radio;" four of the brilliantly bitter masterpieces that made him a New Wave 1980s icon.
Behind him were two of his three original band mates, Steve Nieve on keyboards and Pete Thomas on drums, who, with bassist Davey Faragher, laid down the insistent, serrated sounds that allowed Costello to theatrically vamp, mug, croon, toy with an electric megaphone/siren and issue abrupt, aggressive guitar licks with abandon.
The only good thing about Thursday's (April 28) gully washer that turned parts of the Fairgrounds to the texture of oatmeal, was that it thinned the crowd. So much so that dedicated E.C. fans could easily ferret their way to the fence that surrounds the Boardwalk-Park Place, high-rent section in front of the stage.
Costello wore a purple beret that may very well have been a tribute to his contemporary, Prince. Pinned to the beret was a button bearing the face of the late New Orleans pianist and composer Allen Toussaint.
Costello, 61, has had a long affinity for New Orleans. Old timers might recall that when he played a concert at Frank Gehry's riverfront amphitheater during the 1984 World's Fair, he admitted to the audience that he'd shamelessly borrowed the bass line from Allen Toussaint's "Working in a Coal Mine" for use in his own ironically bouncy "Sour Milk Cow Blues."
His devotion to the Crescent City became most emphatic after Hurricane Katrina, when he teamed with his hero Toussaint to produce an album of songs and a concert tour inspired by the city's recovery struggle. The rocker's affection for Toussaint was obvious Thursday as he shared anecdotes about his work with the great, Socratic Crescent City pianist and composer, who never criticized, Costello said, only pointedly questioned the rock star's errant musical decisions.
In the middle section of the show, Costello performed songs from their collaboration, including the soaring "Ascension Day" and "Who's Gonna Help Brother Get Further," backed by the Crescent City Horns. He also covered Toussaint's "I Cried My Last Tear."
As smoky clouds darkened the Mid-City sky, and mud oozed beneath rain boots, Costello offered up a throbbing version of the ever existential "Beyond Belief" (my personal favorite) the menacing rhumba "Clubland," the bleak "I Don't Want to Go To Chelsea," the introspective "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror," and the strangely sprightly "Every Day I Write the Book" (has a better pop lyric ever been penned?).
For many audience members, Costello will always be beloved for expressing the angst and outrage of youth with musical craftsmanship that has stood the test of time. And Thursday proved that his stage persona has stood the test of time as well, blending a sense of mature gentlemanliness with a certain un-extinguished wickedness.
The adrenalized anthem "Pump It Up" was the closer. Bravo El.