The parlous state of the record business has seen a lot of veteran rockers returning reluctantly to the road at an age when they might have expected to be living comfortably off their record sales. But for Elvis Costello, who doesn’t have a record contract at the moment (“and I don’t particularly want one”), the situation has been reinvigorating.
He’s returning to New Zealand this month for the first time since the fraught Sweetwaters festival in 1999, bringing his crack band the Imposters (pianist Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas from the original Attractions, plus dazzling American bass player Davey Farragher) and an ever-changing set list.
The concert Costello will perform at Auckland’s Civic Theatre has its origins in the Spectacular Spinning Songbook, a device he first used in 1986 and revived for a tour of North American theatres last year. In place of a conventional set, songs were selected at random by audience members invited on stage to spin a 12-foot carnival-style wheel adorned with titles of Costello songs, both well-known and obscure.
We won’t be seeing the big wheel here, but the ongoing effect of this dance with chance is that Costello and his band have many times more material at their fingertips than most touring groups. “It's reacquainted us with so many songs that our shows are very diverse now. Put us on a jazz festival, a bluegrass festival, a punk festival, a winery, a concert hall, we can do it. I mean, I have a terrific band. I sound like I’m boasting, but they really are; they can play anything and we’ve got 150 songs.”
Tunes that may not have got their due on disc can shine unexpectedly in live performance. That includes material from Costello’s most recent album, National Ransom, released two years ago.
At an hour in length (“and there were at least four more songs we could easily have put on there”), the album, in typical Costello fashion, gives you a lot to digest. It is packed with puns, arcane language and a smorgasbord of musical styles. Still, a jazz-flavoured ballad like Jimmy Standing in the Rain emerges as one of his leanest, most elegant compositions. “I would say that the album contains four or five of the best songs I’ve written, and I know it’s true because any time I play one of those songs it stops the show.”
If the album hasn't had the acknowledgement given to his earlier discs, Costello isn't blaming listeners, or even the music business. “To be truthful, it would be tremendous arrogance to assume that something you do 20 or 30 albums into a career is going to mean as much to people as something you do when you started.
“I know that people are pretty impatient, they don’t listen to albums as much as individual songs. These are more serious songs, they are kind of sombre; they were never going to be hit records, so in some ways we have found a more communicative framework for them in performance, because people are just not that focused on record albums anymore.”
That said, Costello enthuses at length about a concert he saw the night before we speak: Crosby, Stills and Nash performing their entire self-titled 1969 album in sequence for the first time. “It was absolutely unbelievable, to hear how they negotiated the dynamics of those songs. They played every song the way it should be played and seemed to take a lot of joy in doing it, and it was really great to witness it. So there’s an awful lot of ways to look at music that’s gone by without it becoming a burden, and it’s the same thing with finding a framework for newer songs.”
Costello doesn’t see himself releasing another album in the near future. In the meantime, the stage has become a viable and enjoyable place not just to air the hits (most of which Costello says he still enjoys) but also to play those overlooked songs. For the audience, too, it offers an experience quite different from sitting at home with your downloads.
“You buy the ticket, you’re going out of the house, you’re going to be part of something for an evening. The audience has a part in how well it goes. It’s not a movie. We’re up there trying to think on our feet. You don’t have to buy the album, you don’t have to read the reviews. You don’t even have to caress your mouse. You just have to turn up with your body and have a good time – or whatever time you’re planning on having.”
ELVIS COSTELLO AND THE IMPOSTERS, Civic Theatre, Auckland, January 19.