Sydney Morning Herald, September 25, 2009

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Angry punk to country gent

Greg Truman

Inner-Sydney pawn shop owners be advised: if a 55-year-old man in a purple fedora with heavy-rim glasses wanders in and insists on trying that long-forgotten 20-watt amplifier stashed on the top shelf, let him crank it up.

Sure, he may look like a cross between a 1970s pimp and a 15th-century minstrel and mutter breathlessly about Hank Cochran, Merle Haggard, George Jones, even Burt Bacharach, but be assured he's good for the cash.

That's because Elvis Costello has sold millions of records during a 34-year career and is considered one of the greatest songwriters of his generation, exploring and advancing musical styles including rock, pop, soul, blues, country, showtune and classical.

Fresh from the surprisingly successful release of Secret, Profane and Sugarcane, a chunky bluegrass 'n' country platter, and a tour of North America with his bands the Sugarcanes and the Imposters that generated drooling praise, Costello is heading to Australia, ostensibly to play solo concerts in major cities. But the London-born songwriter's catholic tastes in music extend to the tools of his trade and he's been known to rummage through orphaned instruments and battered record collections in search of underappreciated gems.

While Costello notes it's becoming increasingly difficult to find precious pieces of vinyl — "Have you tried to find a good record shop lately? It's pretty hard, like an Easter egg hunt" — he also still likes to explore the potential of less-appreciated instruments.

Memorably, before recording his splendid 2002 rock, pop and snarl album When I Was Cruel, Costello's keen eye sighted a cheap, harsh-to-the-ears, 15-watt Sears Roebuck amp perched in the window of a second-hand store.

"I was in Red Bank, New Jersey, to see Lucinda Williams and I happened to come across it and I thought: 'That looks like an amp that could do some damage.' And it proved to be," Costello says.

Unfortunately, the amp didn't survive a flood at a Dublin warehouse, where it had been stored lovingly after contributing extensively to When I Was Cruel, but Costello knows there are other noise-makers out there waiting to be exploited.

However, for his latest venture, Secret, Profane and Sugarcane, acoustic instruments were the weapons of choice. In the hands of some of Nashville's finest musos, Costello and producer T-Bone Burnett churned some killer bluegrass and a bunch of country finery during sit-down sessions over only three days.

Whereby some of Costello's earlier ventures into acoustic, country-ish sounds — notably 1986's King of America, also produced with Burnett — met with lukewarm critical response, Secret, Profane and Sugarcane has been widely embraced and lauded. It entered the Billboard charts at 13, giving Elvis his best US showing on debut since Get Happy!! in 1980 and is roundly tipped as a front runner to take the gong in the new Grammy award category of Americana.

While his shows at the Enmore will visit his on-going love of country and conjure a bit of rock 'n' roll mayhem, there's no chance Costello will invite Burnett to join him on stage to revive their occasional on-stage partnership as the Coward Brothers. "The Coward Brothers are kind of like a blue moon; they don't turn up very often," Costello says.

"I am playing solo, which I think will take people by surprise when they hear it, because they are probably expecting something a lot mellower but I believe that the central part of the rock 'n' roll I like was always just one guy with a guitar. It wasn't until it got a lot louder that it really needed all those people."

Costello has toured Australia numerous times since his first, notorious gig with the Attractions in Sydney on December 3, 1978, when the angriest bespectacled young man in music sparked riotous scenes at the Regent Theatre by walking off after a 50-minute set and refusing to return for an encore.

In those days, Costello was a public upstart, spitting clever lyrics, thrashing an old Telecaster and accentuating his naturally adenoid-heavy vocal stylings in the interest of standing out from the crowd.

Critical and commercial success in Britain, the US and Australia came quickly but once the pop rebel thing died down, Costello was forced to examine his musical roots, a practice he has embraced during the decades.

"Once I'd made five albums, I'd worn out that way of writing," Costello says. "The next record I wanted to do was of other people's songs and it happened to end up a country record [Almost Blue]."

Country music had been nibbling away at Costello's sensibilities since the late '60s, when pop band the Byrds started dipping its folk-rock toes in traditional country music. That led to young Declan Patrick MacManus — his real name — investigating the country-tinged experiments of musicians such as Gram Parsons and their profound influence on other streams of contemporary music.

"At that point, I thought: 'You mean that wall can fall down?' Cause I saw that as totally separate worlds. Once I knew they weren't separate worlds, everything became a lot clearer," he says. "You start listening more broadly. Maybe there's a moment in your life for this record and there's a moment in your life for that record. And that's kinda why I haven't made the same record over and over again. That's just the way I feel."

That audiences worldwide have stuck with him through those genre convulsions is not only a tribute to Costello's talent as a songwriter but also his passion for music.

You hear it during his on-stage banter, his engaging stints as an interviewer of his peers on the television show Spectacle (a second series is in the works) and in conversation with the man. He's like the evolved version of that slightly weird kid you used to know with a great record collection who knows just a little bit too much about relatively obscure artists.

Sometimes ornery, often impatient with the music business, Costello made noises about ending his recording career a few years ago. "It actually cleared my head to say that out loud," he says.

"Then I made about three [records]," he adds, laughing.

His love of live performance has never waned and, on evidence of his recent US concerts, he is at the top of his considerable powers. Sydney audiences can expect up to three hours of the extraordinary.

All hail the new King of Americana.


Sydney Morning Herald, September 25, 2009

Greg Truman profiles Elvis Costello.


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