RAM, July 17, 1985

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Almost Too Blue?

Elvis Costello / T-Bone Burnett
Opera House, Sydney

Phil Stafford

Just like a fall guy, T-Bone Burnett gets down as the perfect foil for E.C.'s stand-up sneer. Introduced through a crackling, barely audible PA that the crew's just remembered to turn on, he strolls onstage as it no such mishap has occurred. "From Hollywood, California" (he's actually from Fort Worth, Texas), "would you please welcome Mr T-Bone Burnett!" he bellows like a true MC. Previously unseen by this audience, he could well have been. So where's the real T-Bone?

That's him sprawling his six and a half-foot frame across the piano, emoting a lament as if an Actors' Equity card depended on it. And when he falls off the stool with the piece still spilling out of the PA, the joke's on us 'real people'.

Despite a natural ease and gently spontaneous wit, T-Bone's still largely an unknown quality to this audience—and it's not until "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend" that they open up to him, hands out for more familiar baithooks.

Interrupted just two lines into a song by a particularly sensitive heckler crying "Bullshit!" at the top of its lungs, it appeared he might take his rod and huff right off. And who'd have blamed him? Yet T-Bone simply walked around a bit, took off his guitar, thought to himself a while and gradually edged back to the mike. "Yeah, you're right!" he said—and played another song.

It's country, it's rock 'n' roll, it's savage satire and wrought emotion. "Art Movies," spoofed at us appropriately on the piano, finally convinced a reticent Costello Crowd that this guy was just as smart, similarly gifted with a brain to match his tongue. 'Art movies... they all have titles like The Scream Of Silence, or Embrace Of Steel he deadpans, with suitable keyboard dramatics. Or "I Need You For A Hole In My Head," in a later, marginally more serious moment. T-Bone showed he had that most vital of pre-requisites for the sudden-death solo spot: an enduring sense of humour, pitted against a cold crowd and an alien atmosphere. "Y'all have any honky-tonks down here?" he asked at one point, to defuse the staid Opera House formality. And with the very first catcall, he was prepared: "I see you got rednecks here as well..."

Elvis Costello's at least done this gig before. Only last time he had a whole band to carry him aloft. Tonight he's the Main Attraction, and is that a beard he's hiding behind? Surely not! Allow him his facial foibles, for what else will serve as a prop? A guitar? Forget it — Elvis' picking is rudimentary at best, a bare-boned background strum anywhere else. A Musician he's not. Same goes for piano. They're mere tools for writing, ends to his meanest talent: words—and the uses thereof. Then there's the Voice. It's heard at its best in this setting, unfettered by noisome backing, each word and nuance plain to the ear. It sings at you, cajoles, caresses, spits and whispers. It tells stories, it stabs backs, passes secrets and plays macrame with the English language. It's the best musical instrument on this block. Guitar's mere punctuation, a rising/falling hum in the storyline. When he didn't use it, we didn't miss it.

We didn't miss the familiar material so much either, as Costello reeled off a spate of new songs from the very start. Of these, "Inch By Inch," "Every Last Detail" and "Our Little Angel" showed the cynical edge undulled with fresh tales of betrayal, inadequacy (not his), Thatcherite decay and interpersonal breakdown—all daubed liberally with that patented black humour. Metaphor mixed beyond the lip of the bowl, plays on words approaching the sports arena... writing's as much a game of skill to him as a high-rolling hockey match. It all gets a bit too clever at times, however—take "Indoor Fireworks," each line a fresh flare of pyromania: ...and though the sparks would fly / we thought our love was fireproof, or I'm gonna burn a broken effigy of me and you. But there's a wildcard in every song, just to keep you guessing: You were the spice of life / the gin in my vermouth. And that thrown in amongst the last few!

Beyond the lyrical gymnastics are the pauses for emotional breath. "You Worthless Thing" (not as callous as its title), "American Without Tears" and "Little Palaces" tell touching stories amidst the literary science. And all the while, that voice — annoyingly nasal as it is sometimes, you can't help gasping at the feel, the control; toying with the "Oliver's Army" melody, stretching "Pills And Soap" to an epic grandeur, drunk and self-consumed on "Almost Blue." A hint of jazz, a shot of the blues—only the piano-top bottle was missing. Could have sworn Tom Waits stumbled in on "Dark End Of Street," but then he don't drink anymore. If you see me, walk on by, Elvis croons over a lethargic piano amble. The audience just leans in closer, transfixed ... he even gets away with the cliches!

They didn't stay that way. The set over-reached itself and pushed the limits of audience concentration. Too much new material it seemed, too large a helping of Elvis' familiar acid/sweet delivery. Were it not for an off-the-wall interlude featuring Elvis and T-Bone in semi-pisstake duet, the show could have crumbled under its own literary weight. As it was, the more sober among us missed most of the jokes—like the fake guitar solos, rewritten lines strewn amongst old standards, the straight-faced country melodramatics ... Wotta pair of hams! "Hi! We're the Coward Brothers, Henry and Howard. This is our inaugural NSW reunion tour. You can relax ... We're not like those other guys. We play all our hits". And of course they did a bunch of covers, including "Tennessee Blues" and a hilarious version of Scott 'Flowers In My Hair' McKenzie's "San Francisco." ('People in motion / people in the ocean') ... Together they sent up the Everlys, Crosby Stills & Nash and every redneck country singer you could name. It was the perfect leveller after Costello's heavier fare...

So, what's he do? He comes back with the 'hits' — "Alison" (of course), a gauche, electric piano-accompanied version of "Shipbuilding," "Red Shoes," "Poison Rose" — but the spell is already broken. Too much, too good, too long ... save the obligatory encores Elvis, you shoulda quit while you were ahead. See what happens when you get too close?

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RAM, No. 264, July 17, 1985


Phil Stafford reviews Elvis Costello with T Bone Burnett, Thursday, June 20, 1985, Opera House, Sydney, Australia.

Images

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Photos.

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Cover.

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