New York Times, June 11, 2009

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Acoustic set of country, rock and old-time tales

Ben Ratliff

Elvis Costello was the bandleader in the most primary sense on Wednesday night at the Beacon Theater. In front of an all-acoustic group without drums — an ad hoc sextet of Nashville session musicians called the Sugarcanes — his guitar was the loudest element, after his voice. The five string players and one accordionist filled the space behind him like a street band, without fancy arrangements or dynamics.

That casual agreement of the band, in bluegrass and American folk forms with occasional Irish accents, was the best and truest thing about the gig. But Mr. Costello is not a casual songwriter, and sometimes, when he reached back to his older songs with more built-in definition — "Alison," say, or "Brilliant Mistake" — you saw the power of a strong composition even in loose circumstances. Dolly Parton likes to say it costs a lot of money to look cheap. Sometimes it takes a great song to sound properly tossed-off.

The long show threaded through country, pop and rock standards, Mr. Costello's back catalog and most of his latest album, Secret, Profane & Sugarcane (Hear Music). The album gives new life to a bunch of his songs with previous purposes, and the most ambitious have conceptual roots in American narratives of old-time show business and slavery: inspired by the love-and-business triangle of Hans Christian Andersen, the Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind and P. T. Barnum. Don't be ashamed to look it up: Mr. Costello did, in preparation for a commission from the Royal Danish Opera in 2005.

In any case Sugarcane is the first acoustic-band record Mr. Costello has made since King of America, from 1986, and two other musicians particularly help define it: Jim Lauderdale, singing tenacious harmony, and Jerry Douglas, extending dobro lines into every possible space of the music. They are in the touring version of the Sugarcanes, and on Wednesday, from opposite sides of the stage, they watched Mr. Costello closely for their cues.

"She Handed Me a Mirror" is among the album's best songs, a waltz about vanity and disappointment in major-to-minor seesaws. "Sulphur To Sugarcane," written with T Bone Burnett, the new album's producer, represented the record's pitfalls, the places where Mr. Costello's historical imagination leads into an overload of metaphor and history. It has explosives, alcohol, sweetness, sex and sin. But Sulphur is also a town in Louisiana, and the song multitasks as a road narrative, modeled a bit after Hank Snow's "I've Been Everywhere." So it runs through other proper nouns, like Bloomington, Poughkeepsie, Pittsburgh and Ypsilanti (which he rhymes with "panties"). It's likable, but a muddle.

It took Mr. Costello about an hour to warm up his voice, but even after that the show seemed to beg for some variety and higher rigor. Mr. Costello made light changes, and generally knew what to do. In "The Delivery Man," halfway through, he played electric guitar sparely, which made a huge difference in a very strummy show. In the new song "How Deep Is the Red" and the old song "Alison," he sang off-microphone for stretches, submitting to the acoustics of the room and tacitly ordering the band to play softly.

And he powered the band through a new and unreleased song which out-clevered the Sugarcane repertory: maybe because it was about jealousy, which for this songwriter is high-concept enough. Its lyrics ominously brandished the phrase "five small words," and then started dealing them out: "Why did you deceive me?" "Why don't you believe me?" "Don't you want me anymore?" "Well, who is keeping score?"


New York Times, June 11, 2009

Ben Ratliff reviews Elvis Costello and the Sugarcanes, Wednesday, June 10, 2009, Beacon Theatre, New York.


2009-06-11 New York Times photo 01 jh.jpg
Photo by Josh Haner.


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