New Orleans Times-Picayune, November 14, 2019
Relocated from the Saenger to the Mahalia
Elvis Costello wasn't supposed to be here.
The New Orleans stop of his Just Trust Tour with longtime collaborators the Imposters was originally booked at the sumptuous Saenger Theatre. That ornate, 1920s recreation of a 15th century Italian courtyard and gardens, restored following Hurricane Katrina, puts a grand, gilded frame around even rock 'n' roll.
But the hazard of the partially collapsed Hard Rock Hotel across North Rampart Street has darkened the Saenger since Oct. 12. A month's worth of shows, including Costello's on Nov. 13, were moved to the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts in Armstrong Park.
Costello, a frequent New Orleans visitor with many local ties, did not let the move pass without comment. Given the still-unstable situation near the Saenger, relocating the show "was probably safer for all of us," he said from the stage. "Hopefully nothing befalls the great theater."
He added a bit of wry British humor: the collapsed hotel was "evidently not that hard rock."
The Mahalia Jackson is a far starker setting than the Saenger. An abundance of empty seats at Costello's show didn't help. Neither did a troublesome, at times muddy, sound mix in a building whose acoustics don't always treat rock shows kindly. To some listeners, Costello's voice seemed off, especially in the early going.
But for two-dozen songs spread across nearly two hours, Costello and company made the best of it. Sometimes they hammered away with workmanlike purpose on lesser compositions; when you are as prolific a songwriter as Costello, not everything will rise to the level of the sublime. Elsewhere, especially during a mini-set of piano-driven songs, Costello rose to the challenge.
Before the show even started, he saluted its host city. Portraits of Art Neville, Fats Domino producer and songwriter Dave Bartholomew, Allen Toussaint and a young Mac "Dr. John" Rebennack cycled across the stage's triptych LED screens.
Within the first six songs, Costello and the Imposters essentially spanned his entire 40-plus-year career. The first four songs — "Strict Time," "Clubland," "Green Shirt" and "Accidents Will Happen" — were drawn from 1979's Armed Forces and 1981's Trust. They then fast-forwarded to his latest album, 2018's Look Now, for "Suspect My Tears," and backed up for "Wonder Woman," from The River in Reverse, his 2006 collaboration with Toussaint. "Mystery Dance," from Costello's 1977 debut My Aim Is True, finally inspired some members of the audience to stand up and dance.
Backing singers Kitten Kuroi and Briana Lee, striking in shiny, skintight ensembles, provided both visual and vocal counterpoint to Costello, whose shades and off-white gambler's hat gave him a distinctly Van Morrison-like appearance.
Longtime drummer Pete Thomas was as steady and solid as a metronome. Bassist Davey Faragher filled in background elements. Keyboardist Steve Nieve was featured early and often.
During "Watching the Detectives," pulp fiction movie posters filled the video screens; eerie green light covered Costello as the rest of the stage was bathed in violet.
He then shifted gears. Alone at the piano with Kuroi and Lee, he dug into "The Greatest Love," a Toussaint composition originally recorded by New Orleans rhythm & blues great Lee Dorsey in the mid-1960s. Costello and Toussaint cut "The Greatest Love" during the recording sessions for The River In Reverse, but it did not appear on the American version of the album. Onstage, it let Costello stretch out as a singer, with Kuroi and Lee's understated but supple accompaniment.
He stayed at the piano for "Blood & Hot Sauce" and "A Face in the Crowd," written for a thus far unrealized musical based on the film A Face in the Crowd. His best vocal performances of the night, they were nuanced and expressive with finely wrought contributions from Kuroi and Lee.
Nieve's grand piano skills filled in for Toussaint's on "Ascension Day," a spooky, minor-key reworking of Professor Longhair's "Tipitina" from The River in Reverse. "Ascension Day" gave way, logically, to "Stations of the Cross," with its references to storms and water coming up to the eaves.
What remained was a charge through Costello's Big Four: "Pump It Up," "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," a nuanced "Alison" and a final "Everyday I Write the Book." On these, Costello's aim was true.
The Times-Picayune, November 14, 2019