There are two things most performers can count on in concert: Play your hits and the audience will rush the stage. Play your new stuff and the audience will rush the concession stand.
So it's with considerable valor or perhaps utter foolishness that Elvis Costello begins a five-night stint at the Beacon Wednesday with his Attractions to showcase, almost entirely, unrecorded material. While Costello promises that "the audience's patience will be rewarded" with a rash of familiar songs toward the show's close, the bulk of the evening will road-test tunes planned for his next album.
The conceit of the show doesn't stop there. According to Costello, "the evening will be the exact inverse of what we did on Kojak Variety" (Costello's recent album of cover songs). All the pieces at the Beacon instead will draw from the well of material Elvis has written for other people to cover.
Over the years, Costello has offered songs to scores of singers, from the obscure Celtic chanteuse June Tabor to the trashy glam queen Wendy James to legends like Roger McQuinn and Johnny Cash. One caveat: Costello won't consider songs that other artists decided to cover on their own, e.g. "Alison" (done by Linda Ronstadt).
Costello reveals that only about half of the songs he wrote for any given singer wound up being recorded. Bonnie Raitt has yet to cover the songs the writer submitted on spec.
Costello plans to spill the beans behind some songs' fate in his introductions, giving the show even more of an insider feel. Better yet, the show gives audiences the rare opportunity to play some small part in the making of a record. "People can sway things," Elvis explains.
"We may even stop at one point and ask, 'How do you like this ending?' We won't take a vote, however."
Such a preview isn't unprecedented. Neil Young played Harvest Moon at The Beacon six months before its release. The difference is, Costello will record his Beacon performances, with some ending up on record. Costello says inspiration for the event comes from a longstanding desire to "present live material in a new way."
He began doing so as far back as 1979 with a feverish series of surprise shows at New York clubs over April Fool's Day weekend. Costello startled as well with his Broadway shows in 1986, during which he determined the evening's selections by spinning a wheel decorated with song titles. Still, it was Costello's show with the Brodsky Quartet at Town Hall two years ago that emboldened him to try this experiment. "We got the warmest reception here to an entirely new form [of music]."
To make his latest music more fathomable, Costello says he'll stress ballads. "Faster songs are harder to decipher on first hearing. They all go by in a blur."
Costello accepts the fact that this approach may not please all. "That's okay," he says. "Only a megalomaniac wants to be loved by everyone."