SF Weekly, April 16, 2012

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Elvis Costello and the Imposters
spin their wheel at the Warfield


Jonathan Kiefer

You should know that your reviewer was not, at first, a fan: "So he sings with that voice on purpose?" Pretty rich coming from an apologist for both Donald Fagen and Geddy Lee. But this was long ago, in high school, with much yet to be learned. That first Elvis Costello exposure, tellingly proselytized by a pal with a perfect verbal on the S.A.T., came again to mind Sunday night at the Warfield, entrance to which required passing through the adolescence-redolent Market Street scene of chess masters sitting solemnly in clouds of skunky weed smoke and b.o.

Furthermore, your reviewer was coming from a genteel and soporific wine country weekend, admittedly fighting an urge to just stay in and watch Family Guy. But from the early looks of the Warfield crowd, so was everybody else. To say so is just to acknowledge that some domestication has occurred since Costello's own salad days of spitting tuneful accusations and spazzing around, and there's no denying the vague correlation between having married Diana Krall at Elton John's castle and needing to get "Watching the Detectives" out of the way early on.

Fears of rote, out-to-pasture punk were dismissed early on. The man can put on a show — or in this case a Spectacular Spinning Songbook tour, with fans invited onstage to derive the evening's set list from a big bright roulette wheel full of songs and subjects. Taking up top hat and cane, he'd introduced himself as Napoleon Dynamite, and it felt all right to imagine that anyone inferring some random Jon Heder reference was present only on account of being brought by parents imposing a history lesson. True, this game-show-cabaret routine, reiterated from his own act of 25 years ago, might look like a way of outsourcing the entertainment labor. But in fact it gave the night a nice balance of spontaneity and directional momentum — palpably enjoyed by the maestro and impressively managed by a shrewdly people-wrangling pair of go-go dancers.

His Imposters — Davey Faragher on bass; Steve Nieve, keyboards; Pete Thomas, drums — also were in good supportive form, accommodating an initially muddy mix and Costello's sometimes clotted guitar solos with sturdy aplomb. Together they plowed through a full array of fierce rockers, crooner ballads, and things in between ("Everyday I Write the Book," having dried out some of its pop sap, has aged especially well), not to mention that great, rhythmically augmented take on Chuck Berry's "No Particular Place to Go, plus a "Happy Birthday" by special request. With this material, this group would be ideal in a smaller and better sounding room — but of course, deservedly, they draw a bigger room's crowd.

In a back catalog as big as Costello's, there always will be inessentials. Even the songs themselves sometimes leak filler, creating their own drag. More recent efforts like "Bedlam" and "Episode of Blonde," to take two examples from the Warfield set, require some rough sledding to lock in to their respective grooves; they don't seem to have come as easily as, say, his hooky New Wave staple, "(I Don't Want to Go To) Chelsea" — to which, happily, he did want to go last night, and therefore adjusted the big wheel accordingly.

Well, making us wait for the good stuff is the showman's prerogative. As for steering the wheel himself, he asked, "If I can't cheat in San Francisco, where can I cheat?" Fine, although we bet he says that to all the cities. Relatedly, covering the Grateful Dead's "Ramble On Rose" and closing out his cover of Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding" could in theory have seemed a tad ingratiating. But the arrangements were highly embraceable. (Yes, your reviewer knows better these days: It's not just the voice itself; it's the phrasing.) And in retrospect the latter, a cry of rage and despondency channeled by an eloquent weirdo nerd into something you can (and did) dance to, seems like rather an ideal expression of local sensibility after all.

Critic's Notebook:

Songs widely expected but not played: "Alison," "Pump It Up"

Honorary imposter: The woman who got on stage, possibly without being invited, and kept busy for many songs, step dancing, playing air guitar and strumming her own leg.

Best stage banter: Welcoming one audience-culled couple to the stage, Costello asked if they'd come to the show together. "And we're gonna leave together, too," the woman answered. The crowd liked that. "Depends on the song," Costello said. The crowd liked that too.

Second best banter: Costello to orchestra section, after having visited balcony section: "Up in that balcony they're all high as a kite."

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SF Weekly, April 16, 2012


Jonathan Kiefer reviews Elvis Costello & The Imposters, Sunday, April 15, 2012, Warfield Theatre, San Francisco.


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