Before we disagree about Elvis Costello And The Imposter’s performance at the Beacon Theatre last night, let’s all agree that the background slides playing variations on Costello EP and album sleeves in the style of Barney Bubbles, was a terrific tribute to the late artist. Bubbles painted the cover art for Imperial Bedroom, “Snake Charmer And Reclining Octopus”, and the slides doubled nicely as an introduction to the various “trap door in the third verse” love stories we were here to hear. Lest we forget, because Elvis Costello certainly hasn’t, Stiff Records resident designer and art director Bubbles, was the man for that original fold out, postcard ridden, sleeve within sleeve, Armed Forces vinyl art -to name one, just about randomly. Good for Elvis, a man who has an eye for honor and honoring, it was a pitch perfect complement to a set that I found bewildering.
When Imperial Bedroom was first released I called it the 26 year old rock star’s divorce album (in the East Village Eye), now I would call it his songs of intense intransigent transformations: where the flux meets the wheel, Costello, with producer Geoff Emerick, performed chamber pop of emotional devastation. If rock is happy songs about sad things, Imperial Bedroom is beautiful songs about terrible things. Elvis could have brought out an orchestra, or rearranged it with his buddies from the Brodsky Quartet. Instead he stuck keyboardist Steve Nieve right on top, drummer Pete Thomas on the bottom, bassist Davey Faragher solidifies it all and little hands of concrete himself Elvis -who played loud and fast and sometimes very skilfully, got his rock star on. Two backup singers filled in behind him. The result was not consorts but concessions: I’d seen Elvis perform a fine “Watching The Detectives” just a month before at Town Hall, last night’s version was too fast, the song is almost tactile in its encroaching horror: it’s a song that needs to be stopped and savored, that needs to wait patiently for its moment and then pounce. Costello bulldozes his way through it, he less rushes it and more directs it hard and fast, he rams it down our throats. Inexcusable except there is one excuse, he follows it with one of the most fascinating questions I’ve heard: “what happens to the people in songs after the songs are over?” Then he imagines that the girl who was watching the detectives is now the woman with her baby waiting for her husband to come home in “The Long Honeymoon” (a nice take but his voice seemed a little hoarse).
Not the only nice take either, it wasn’t all shock and awe, the best moment of the evening was a perfect arrangement of “Shot With His Own Gun” , it took me right back to the Palladium in the early 80s, where it was lost on Trust before emerging live as a devastating showstopper. The best use of Steve Nieve all night. Elvis treated Steve like he was Joe Torre and Steve was Mariano Rivera, he overused him, pushed too hard on synths and keyboards because Elvis chose not to give the songs what they required. The song was only topped by a terrific “Almost Blue” -Elvis mentioned going to see a jazz singer performing in London, who encored with it. The woman is now his wife. These are exceptional songs, most of the set were exceptional songs only “Mood For Moderns” was second tier). But these were exceptional versions as well, light years ahead of what should have been a triple shot, “…And In Every Home”, “Beyond Belief”, “Man Out Of Time”. How could that not be perfect, why is it all such a vicious little run through? Intoxicated in its breathlessness, songs he seldom performs live were taken as though he was terrified of nostalgia. Why play “Beyond Belief” as though it was “Pump It Up” -does it add to his understanding, or ours, of the song, to take a sledgehammer to it? If you’re going to perform the greatest melodies of your career, play it, don’t dick it.
I’m not even entirely comfortable with the song selection itself, why “Pills And Soap” (not a great take either) and not “Imperial Bedroom” itself? I’d have loved to hear “The Stamping Ground” for one… If there was a concept why not include “Black Sails In The Sunset” (remember that one: “all the money in the world will never bring your body back”) from around that time. And what is the concept? It is so nebulous as to be nonexistent and falls apart late with two songs off his eagerly anticipated musical “Face In The Crowd”…. speaking of which: I dubbed “American Mirror” his best song in decades last month (here), unadorned by anything but Larkin Poe singing backup and a piano, it stopped the show. He has rearranged it into this towering edifice of ego and it now blows. Stop messing about with your damn songs. Maybe that’s his problem, the man doesn’t know when to say OK this is done.
My significant other Ellen Bach considered this same set, when she caught it on Saturday in Connecticut, the greatest live performance she has ever seen, for former rock nyc scribe Mike Nessing it was “epic” and the audience adored it, but they can’t hear what it should sound like, and it shouldn’t sound like this. There is a grace under firing squad about the album; the sloths and sisters, louts and lovers, who abound are given a life beyond their life through the intricacies of creation and it is a coming to life that Costello didn’t breathe into his creation last night. In August 1995, I saw Elvis perform an “Accidents Will Happen” with an extended coda, Elvis and the audience trading back and forth on “I know” and if he had kept going, I’d be there right this second still singing it: it made time stand still. The version last night was both fast and furious, and a drag.
I’m not claiming last night was bad, he saved “Alison” from the a capella version we had been hearing, helped immensely by two backup singers. “Blood And Hot Sauce” has improved. “This House Is Empty Now” was superb. While his voice seemed to go on him half way through, he remained completely committed to his vision for over two and a half hours of extremely high energy rock em and sock em. But that “Little Savage” -it got a standing O but why? “Tears Before Bedtime”? Those boo hoo hoos made me want to cry. And when you are playing “Human Hands” -I first heard “Human Hand” at Costello’s New Year’s Eve “Almost Blue, Almost 1982” concert (reviewed it for Creem), before it was released, and flipped for it then, just give yourself up to it. Soft, sweet, a gorgeous if obtuse (what’s with the girls in the Reeperbahn?) song of devotion. And if you have written a song so great that it defies simple answers or simple questions, a song so empathic, every search for an answer is a mirror, just sing it. It’s easy. Play the damn song the way you wrote it. I am referring to “Man Out Of Town” -if you are a man and you don’t see yourself in “Man Out Of Time”, you’re not listening hard enough. Imperial Bedroom took an idea, miniature Chekhovian stories of romance and life on the downward staircase and into jail, and performed them as though they were pop classicism dreamscape greatest moments. The entire album is as complete an artistic vision as you can possibly get, it is, simply, enough alone for Costello to have rested his career on. What the hell, man, sing the damn songs.
Having claimed all the above, I did enjoy the set. I just can imagine what Ellen Bach heard, the greatest live concert ever.