Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, June 13, 2017
Elvis Costello moves into the Imperial Bedroom
Elvis Costello was just short of 23 years old when he released his debut album in 1977, My Aim is True. New Wave, they called it, or pub rock, delivered with a big dose of punk sneer. And he kept evolving, moving like a shark, lest the creativity die. Country, blues, folk, jazz, classical, soul, even orchestral re-arrangements of his work. "I've stayed on the stage singing the best of them," he says of his songs. Teaming up for more inspiration with Paul McCartney, The Roots, Allen Toussaint, Burt Bacharach, The Brodsky Quartet and the Dutch big band Metropole Orkest.
So Costello — and any prolific composer has likely faced this challenge — has reached the point where four decades of creation has left him with a thematically unmanageable catalog. At times he's resorted to gimmicks such his "Spinning Songbook," a wheel that he'd spin onstage, and whatever song it landed on, he would play.
Was it a gimmick? Or was it a search for art as accident, the incidental confluence of where Costello was at that moment, which followed that other moment, and on to this moment now. Costello's version of Jackson Pollock dribbling paint on a canvas. "Accidents Will Happen," is how Costello might put it.
Costello and The Imposters return here for a June 17 show at Constellation Brands-Marvin Sands Performing Arts Center. This tour is sort of what many longstanding artists with a wealth of material are doing these days. Revisiting an old album. Like Bruce Springsteen, playing The River in its entirety. Or Brian Wilson when he comes to Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre on Sept. 19, performing Pet Sounds from start to finish.
Except, "I wanted to make a story out of it," Costello says. "And not simply say, 'Remember this one?'"
Remember Imperial Bedroom? Released in 1982, it was adored by critics for depth of songwriting and its intricate soundscape. But commercially, it didn't get the reception Costello was accustomed to. Perhaps eight albums in five years is a bit too much for public consumption.
"At first, you're kind of offended by the lack of response to your work," Costello says. "Every record was a hit. We were still knocking on the door in 1982, yet people knew our name. The audience was maybe a little bit shocked. The songs were so dour."
We'll stop right here and acknowledge that Costello, during those five years, had also been building quite a career as an insufferable snot. He's a legend in Rochester for the night he was thrown out of Scorgie's. But either that was an act, or he's changed, learned how to deal with other humans. The Costello of this interview answered questions expansively, his mind darting to places he didn't need to go, but went anyway. He's also quite funny, dryly self-deprecating.
"I love the record, I never had the time or resources to play the songs properly," Costello says of Imperial Bedroom. "When I look at any songs I play, I try to bring something to bear that I've learned."
The resources in his current band, The Imposters, include two musicians who were with Costello in those early days, in his band The Attractions. "Now that we're talking to one another a bit in complete sentences, we've had conversations about where these songs can go," Costello says. "Instead of having the no-singers Attractions version of the record, we have four singers.
"Jazz musicians play songs 60, 70 years old, and try to import them with new ideas. What we wanted to do with this was open the door to other rooms, a series of interlocking passages, and we hope to find our way to them, with the audience's approval." Those passages allow songs from My Aim is True to cross paths with Imperial Bedroom, so that "you can hear the connection musically when you play it," Costello says.
"This just made me think a little more clearly. Finding some of the same things in other songs, songs from other records, that are compatible. Sequencing songs together, so they could accumulate a story of their own."
Familiarity is the enemy, at least for the artist, Costello says. "It's like Godzilla, every time they kill that lizard, it comes back. There's your explanation why we chose to do this, about how we do look at things."
So this tour, while ostensibly being about Imperial Bedroom, will hardly be recognizable as the album. And there may well be unfamiliar songs as well, if Costello delves into one of his newest projects, "a musical presentation in development," he calls it. It's a musical of A Face in the Crowd, the 1957 film in which Andy Griffith plays a drunken drifter who becomes a manufactured radio star, until he's destroyed by his own arrogance. Costello's been trying out a few songs from the production, "so I know more about them."
"The reaction was immediate," he says. "It's a story worth telling. But 18 months ago, when we first starting talking about this, the intention was a little different."
"Current reality. Events that have overtaken us. The power of television to drown out the crowd and an individual, you could say that's something we've seen."
He's talking about Trump, of course, and easy-to-digest populism as presented on television and the internet. But Costello is not interested in allowing his songs to be just another face in the crowd. "Playing them in a facile way that is only making people feel nostalgic, because they recognize them. That's not what we're doing."
Costello's building new art from old artifacts. "Everything I do is the opposite of the internet," he says. "You want to do it for the right reasons."
If you go
What: Elvis Costello and The Imposters with Dawes.
When: 7:30 p.m. June 17.
Where: Constellation Brands-Marvin Sands Performing Arts Center, near Canandaigua, on the Finger Lakes Community College campus.
Tickets: $95, $75, $49.50 and $35 for the pavilion-only show.
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, June 13, 2017