The last time he dropped into New York, Elvis Costello was all dressed up for the big stage at Radio City, playing with Burt Bacharach and a 30-piece orchestra. Expect something a little different June 26 at the Guinness Fleadh on Randalls Island, where Costello is one of the headline attractions among the 40 or so performers.
The Fleadh — pronounced "flah" — is much more a tank top and shorts, beer-in-your-hand kind of wing-ding, a big open festival where listeners can wander around and check out music playing simultaneously on four stages.
Or to borrow Costello's more-direct phrasing, "Saturday night is party night." And no, it's no big problem for him to slide from the elegant, almost formal Bacharach shows with their lush orchestrations, to a folk-tinged rock 'n' roll show.
"Sometimes I'm onstage, and I just like to pick a tune," he says with a laugh. "You can't do that with a 30-piece orchestra."
Costello is, of course, the man who programed his sets on one tour by spinning an onstage wheel. That sort of refreshing singularity also has helped give him a reputation for being somewhat quirky — one of those rock stars who — despite million-selling records — still is regarded in some quarters as a cult star.
That particular part of his reputation has faded as he has collaborated with the likes of Paul McCartney before the Bacharach project — and right now he's having a major mainstream moment with his songs prominently featured in two hit movies.
That's Costello singing "She," the Charles Aznavour song, at the beginning and end of Notting Hill. Then in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, he and Bacharach do a goofy cameo as a couple of 1969 London street singers playing "I'll Never Fall in Love Again."
What he'll do at the Fleadh is "basically the show we've been doing since 1995," he says. "We've done it at Italian opera houses and at full-on rock stages. I've played solo in front of 100,000 people."
It's got some flexibility, in other words, which makes it a good fit with the Fleadh.
Launched in the U.S. in 1997 as an extension of Irish music-and-arts festivals, the Fleadh soon became one of the hippest of the summer multi-act tours — thanks to the fact that it hasn't overextended itself.
This year, it has grown from three cities to four. Its lineup still showcases a strong group of traditional Irish performers, from the Saw Doctors and Eleanor McEvoy, to Altan and Frances Black, although it also features a strong scattering of underappreciated American folk and country artists like Lucinda Williams and John Prine, plus a couple of name-brand, attention-getting pop stars like Hootie and the Blowfish.
The biggest problem with the Fleadh, musically, is that some of its must-see performances bang into one another. At the same time that Costello is playing on one stage, Richard Thompson is playing on another. It's a nice problem, but a problem nonetheless.
Perhaps because he comes from the other side of the ocean from Hootie, the British-born Costello is described in festival news releases as "one of the most celebrated Irish musicians in the world."
He finds this somewhat amusing.
"I was raised in London and Liverpool," he says. "And the Irish are pretty particular about nationality."
But he did live in Dublin for 10 years, and in the broader sense, he suggests that as a musician who has played an eclectic range of songs over 20-plus years, he can claim legitimate ties to the soul of the Emerald Isle.
"Traditional music all over the world is linked to Ireland," he points out, from American country music to fiddle tunes heard in Central Europe. "There's a type of imagination you hear in, for instance, Bono's way of thinking. It can be a little self-conscious, but it also can be very poetic.
"It's something worth being proud about, as long as you don't exclude all else. An awful lot of 'Irish' musicians are actually German."
And this cross-fertilization is good, he says, because music always wears traveling shoes. It moves around, it changes, someone else picks it up. It never dies, it just evolves — and no one should be surprised to find it some distance from where it was spotted before.
"People were bewildered when I sang country music," says Costello, whose "Almost Blue" album in 1981 stunned fans who pegged him as a New Wave rocker. "They didn't understand how I felt about it — and still feel about it."
The critics were right, he says, that he didn't hear a lot of country music growing up in England. But then he ran across a Gram Parsons record — and that led him back to the Byrds and then to George Jones and Merle Haggard.
It's no big stretch to see how someone performing hard-edged New Wave rock in the late '70s would find kinship with the earlier work of Jones and Haggard — and there's a lot of that spirit in the Fleadh.
In one day, in one setting, it blends musical styles that share innumerable common threads, yet often are marketed by the music biz as though they arrived from different planets.
Count Costello, not surprisingly, among those musicians who would like more places where allegedly different styles could come together. If he were allowed to be only a New wave rocker, after all, his concerts with Bacharach would have been as unthinkable as his country tunes.
"It's all music, isn't it?" he muses. "I think people have the ability to recognize that. But the music industry has no idea. They're so afraid of being wrong."
The Fleadh, with its beer company sponsorship and all, isn't exactly a full-on statement of grass-roots people's rebellion. But musically, its aim is true.