Last summer, when Elvis Costello rolled through Sonoma County, he didn't sell out — a first for him at the Wells Fargo Center.
On the other hand his wife, Diana Krall, packed the house a few nights before. Not that there's any family rivalry.
Some people attributed the leaner turn-out to his latest Southern infatuation. His new album, Secret, Profane and Sugarcane, spawned a road band called the Sugarcanes — an acoustic, back-porch assortment of bluegrass regulars such as Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Jerry Douglas on dobro, Mike Compton on mandolin and Jim Lauderdale on high harmonies and guitar.
At least one ticket-holder asked for a refund at the box office.
Well, get ready for more twang, because Elvis is back out on the road after a short solo run, re-teaming with the Sugarcanes and stopping by for hoedown under the tent at the Sonoma Jazz+ festival on Sunday.
Lately, the songlist breaks down into two to three songs from Secret, Profane and Sugarcane, along with five to six unrecorded songs and then "a bunch of songs that are well-known as songs, but are being heard in different arrangements."
Fans of his punchier Imposters days will be happy to know drums will be present this time. Longtime Elvis collaborator Pete Thomas adds sticks to the ensemble. And multi-instrumentalist Fats Kaplan holds down the steel guitar.
Also new to the mix: Elvis says the recently written, unrecorded song, "Slow Drag with Josephine," has "been a surprise every single night I've played it. It's surprised the hell out of me."
On his solo tour the past few months, he would hunker down with a 1937 L-00 parlor guitar and belt it "without a microphone, on the edge of the stage."
"The audience every single night has reacted to it like they've heard it many many times before," he says. "That's why you play music on stage — to have moments like that."
Before Sonoma Jazz+ kicks off, Elvis took time out to chat about bluegrass, Metallica and his father:
Last time we spoke, in August of last year, you mentioned that the first time you played "Red Cotton" (a song that addresses the scourge of slavery all over the world), it got a standing ovation and you were floored by that. I'm curious to know how it's been received since then.
Well, as time goes on, it doesn't quite fit into every occasion. I plan to revive it in the summer, but on the recent run we were playing a lot of newer songs.
It's a powerful song and obviously such a scar not only on the South but all over the world including Liverpool (where his mother was born).
I plan on playing it in Liverpool this summer. But we were playing a lot of stand-up festival venues and slow songs just don't hold their attention. You would be very arrogant to assume that a song like that was going to keep their attention and not seem like a bunch of slow changes. A theater show is really where a song like that can be most effective.
Has it been liberating to be able to take a song like "Every Day I Write the Book" and totally rework it with a band like the Sugar Canes?
Well, that arrangement we developed, slowing it down as the guys brought their parts in, it became a much more emotional song. It was always a song that people liked, but I never thought it was as emotional as it seems now.
I think you've said you grew to hate the original version.
Ah, well, I was trying to make a joke.
In Santa Rosa last summer, people started growing restless with the twang and yelling out requests for the classics and their favorites. Do you feel that tension, that pull between old and new?
Well, not really. If they're sitting there wishing it was a rock and roll band, it's because they're not hearing what's really going on. The assumption that it's a bluegrass band because it shares some of the instrumentation and these kinds of players who have played in those kinds of lineups, it's clearly not.
You're not playing (famed bluegrass musician) Ralph Stanley songs.
We have been known to play one Stanley Brothers song, but it's a gospel tune. The truth of it is — I don't have any pretense of playing bluegrass. It's not that I don't like bluegrass, it's just that there are a lot of people who do that much better than me.
People who are really listening, like the band they're hearing for its virtues rather than what they're longing to hear in other bands. Others could be hearing Metallica or a memory of one of my other shows, but one way or another the band that's actually playing is this one.
You mentioned in that show how your father once said, "Always look down a note, instead of looking up at a note." What does that mean?
Well, I make a joke that I don't understand it, but I actually understand it very well. I think it's like a high jumper imagining themselves being able to jump over a pole and that's how they're able to jump higher than other people. If you look up while you're already above it, you'll get a kind of vertigo in reverse. My father was a very good technical singer and a very accomplished singer and could sing a lot of different types of music and still sings around the house. He told me that when I was about to play with an 8-piece orchestra for the first time.
I've enjoyed the candid, seemingly unscripted banter on your Sundance show Spectacle. What's been the biggest challenge in pulling off that show?
Well the greatest challenge is the compression of the actual recording of the show into such a small space of time for reasons of budget or availability, which means my own performances as a vocalist are very flawed. That I'm not very happy with. There are a few moments that I'm glad happened, like singing with Smokey Robinson. I had recorded all of The Police that same day. We had been on the set from 10 in the morning and by 10:30 at night I was now singing with Smokey Robinson, I'd been using my voice in one way or another for 12 hours. It's something like a nightmare when you get the thrill of singing with him and he says, "You take the lead and I'll sing harmony." And maybe that makes you sing better, I don't know.
When it comes to jazz festivals, there are the old guard like the New Orleans Jazz Festival and Monterey, which were founded decades ago and have kept the name even though most of the headliners are no longer jazz. Then you have Sonoma Jazz+, which was founded six years ago, and if you look at the headliners this year, it's yourself, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Earth Wind and Fire and the Neville Brothers. What do you think about these labels of jazz where there isn't a lot of jazz to be had?
Well, I think a lot of jazz musicians probably have a legitimate complaint. The words that were attached to the music were pejorative words or they were taboo terms, both for jazz and rock and roll. Taboo for rock and roll and pejorative in the case of jazz. But they've come to not have any meaning. I'm playing with the Sugarcanes in Europe this summer and we're playing a lot of jazz festivals and you'd be hard pressed to find a jazz musician anywhere. They don't seem to book as much jazz as they used to. And sometimes jazz purists complain that it's people like me that are booking up the space. My argument to that is that organizers of the festivals are not doing it altruistically — it's a business. I think the best of them are trying to create a framework in which a good amount of all the musics of value and worth can be heard.