Orange County Register, November 29, 2018
Elvis Costello is playing LA — Here are three
Elvis Costello is a musical genius but also a mortal man subject to the vagaries of health and the occasional malfunctioning guitar.
And after more than 40 years in the spotlight, he's still unstoppable. A total pro, Costello proved at the House of Blues in Anaheim on Wednesday that an imperfection or two, when combined with the strength and beauty of his music, can make a strong night of music even more powerful.
Costello's just-released Look Now is his first album of new material in five years, his first with his longtime band the Imposters in a decade, and his 30th studio record in 41 years. He's been remarkably prolific, which you can sometimes take for granted, but were reminded earlier this year you really shouldn't when he suddenly canceled a run of overseas shows after treatment for what was described as an aggressive but treatable form of cancer.
It was a relief then to see him on stage in Anaheim, with a second show at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles on Thursday, seeming fit as ever. When a fan shouted out a question about his health it was clear his sense of humor has recovered, too.
"I'm feeling just fine," Costello replied with a grin and a nod at his band. "They're just being nice to me because they think I might die."
Knock on wood that doesn't happen for years, because at 64 he's got the energy of a much younger musician, playing 28 songs over two-and-a-half hours to the delight of an audience that filled most of the venue. Even the technical glitches, "the gremlins," as Costello called them, that plagued his guitar rig early in the show didn't dampen fans' enthusiasm and might have actually produced a more hits-laden set – more on that in a moment.
The current tour is titled "Look Now and Then," which the setlist reflected, featuring seven of 12 tracks on the new record, 14 from his first four albums released between 1977 and 1980, and seven cherry-picked from records in between. A few more impressions of the night included:
The Look Now material is strong: Costello had talked in the past about not seeing the sense in the traditional practices of the music industry, particularly recording albums in the age of downloads and streams. His last record, Wise Up Ghost, from which "Sugar Won't Work" was performed on Wednesday, was a collaboration with the Roots, and before that you have to go back to 2010 and National Ransom.
These new songs benefit from not being entirely new, some of them having been around in unfinished form for a few years, ideas for a musical theater project, including a few collaborations with Costello's heroes and role models such as Carole King and Burt Bacharach.
"Photographs Can Lie," the first of the new tunes to surface on Wednesday, is one of three co-writes with Bacharach, who did a full album, Painted From Memory, with Costello a few decades ago. It's a slinky pop number on which Costello's longtime keyboardist Steve Nieve played a lovely piano. "Burnt Sugar is Bitter," the collaboration with King, had an uptown feel reminiscent of the Brill Building era from which she emerged and Costello has long adored.
Many of these new numbers are written from the point of view of different female protagonists, allowing Costello the chance to introduce the characters and settings in numbers such as "Don't Look Now" and "He's Given Me Things," both played in the encore, both about the same actress at stages in her life. And while a bunch of these would be perfect for the Elvis Costello musical that someone needs to produce, others, such as "Mr. & Mrs. Hush," rocked like vintage Costello.
The classics are so great: "This Year's Girl" opened the show and "Radio Radio" came two songs later, both of them tracks from Costello's second album This Year's Model. After leaving the stage three songs in so his crew could figure out why his guitar kept cutting in and out, he returned for a stripped-down version of "Accidents Will Happen" sung mostly with just Nieve's beautiful piano work, and then "Green Shirt," both of those from the third record Armed Forces.
When the guitar issues resurfaced soon after, Costello switched to acoustic to blaze through "Mystery Dance" from his 1977 debut My Aim Is True. As more early hits piled up, it sort of seemed like he might be focusing on more of the earlier basic rock and roll tracks which didn't need anything more than what he eventually ended up with: a microphone placed in front a single Vox amp, no pedals, no boards, no effects. Whatever the reason, he and the Imposters were never a song or two removed from something that somebody loved: "Watching The Detectives," done with all the ominous feel that song and the green stage lighting delivers, "Alison," done in a beautifully bare-bones arrangement, "High Fidelity" and "Moods for Moderns," a pair of pell-mell old-school soul or R&B-styled tracks off Get Happy!!
The Imposters are a terrific band: Costello's original band, the Attractions, is the classic lineup, but when Costello and bassist Bruce Thomas had a falling out in the mid-90s he kept Attractions' keyboard player Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas and added bassist Davey Faragher to form the Imposters. For his 2017 tour to play nearly all of his 1982 album Imperial Bedroom, the band added two backing vocalists, Kitten Kuroi and Briana Lee, and they're still in the band, adding lovely vocals to the more vintage pop sounds of the new material.
It's clear that 40 years of Costello, Nieve and Thomas playing together has created a musical connection that serves songs old and new beautifully. When Costello momentarily lost his way during "He's Given Me Things" – it's probably the most challenging vocal on the new record and a fan had a medical emergency midway through it that caused Costello to pause in concern – he and Nieve exchanged a few glances and found their way back to the number.
("What's So Funny 'bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" wrapped up the show as it traditionally does, and for the final bows you really felt the unity these six musicians enjoy each night.
Elvis Costello and the Imposters
Where: House of Blues, Anaheim
Also: Wiltern Theatre, Los Angeles, Thursday, Nov. 29
Orange County Register, November 29, 2018
Photo by Kelly A. Swift