About three weeks ago, I watched Elvis Costello and his bluegrass band, the Sugarcanes, perform on the Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien. To my surprise, Elvis sounded like he had a frog in his throat. This was not what I expected from someone I still consider one of the greatest vocalists in music, particularly after the release of his stellar bluegrass album, Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, in which the studio recordings reflect an Elvis Costello on the top of his game vocally, not missing a note, nor an inflection.
I assumed, while watching the Tonight Show, that Elvis must've had a cold. It happens, even to the greats. I once went to see Chris Rock perform live and he sounded like he should've been home in bed, rather than entertaining a sold-out crowd. Still, the show must go on, as they say (or said), and I'm sure Elvis understood this, so he went out there on the stage at NBC and did what he could, despite the unfortunate situation that was plaguing his vocal chords. Whoever was watching that night, however, probably came away with the idea that Elvis was losing it. Like many-a-great crooner, there comes a time when they just can't do what they used to.
But I knew better. I knew Elvis is a perfectionist in too many ways to begin to lose his voice at what seems to be the pinnacle of an everlasting career. Since his very first release, he has consistently refined his craft, becoming an even greater singer, songwriter and musician year after year. He transcends the usual attributes associated with those called "professionals" and, especially when it comes to creative production and being prepared to perform at his best, he has set a standard few could obtain and few dare to attempt. In the world of popular music, he is Michael Jordan.
So when it came time to see Elvis and the Sugarcanes last night at the Bass Concert Hall in Austin, I barely gave the Tonight Show performance a second thought. I had seen the performances on his television show, Spectacle, and they were perfectly executed and overwhelmingly touching, as are the recordings from his new album that I mentioned previously. There was no way Elvis was going to disappoint. Like those that had the chance to see Michael Jordan play live, they always went into the theatre of basketball knowing he was going to put on a show and always walked away feeling as if they went to see the greatest in the game. Rarely did Michael not deliver.
Nor does Elvis. His two and a half hour performance never wavered from greatness, not even for a moment. Opening with the rhythm and blues standard, "Mystery Train," and closing with Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away," and sandwiching almost his entire new album, several songs from his first album, My Aim Is True, a few from his acoustic masterpiece, King of America, a handful from his album of country standards, Almost Blue, unexpected covers like Velvet Underground's "Femme Fatale" and the Grateful Dead's "Friend of the Devil" and sprinklings of his own classics like "Everyday I Write the Book" and "Alison" (redone in a bluegrass context), Elvis and the Sugarcanes delivered the goods like "Sam the Butcher bringing Alice the meat," meaning it was a two and a half hour onslaught by some of the finest musicians in the game, performing their best and satisfying an audience far beyond their expectations, even though, when it comes to Elvis, expectations are always ridiculously high.
Performing with Elvis on stage, as on the new album, was bluegrass legend, Jim Lauderdale, who followed Elvis' vocals almost line for line, with the tightest and smoothest harmonies this side of the Mississippi. Lauderdale, an infamous songwriter in his own right, was a huge factor in this uncanny presentation of Elvis' songs. Though he did his best to not bring attention to himself, allowing Elvis to be the focal point of the show, one couldn't help wondering every couple of seconds, "Man, who the hell is singing that harmony?!" and then seeking out Lauderdale who was decked out in full on bluegrass, old school Night at the Opry attire. He certainly wasn't the only musician making up this well-orchestrated, finely tuned sound that consistently brought members of the audience to their feet, but his vocals were the icing on top that made the cake was it was: delicious, scrumptious and unlike any other cake you've ever come upon, so much so, you'd kill for the recipe.
Another element to that recipe was dobro player, Jerry Douglas, one of the most famous players in country and bluegrass history, who has performed on over 1600 albums in his day, along with greats like Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Ray Charles and Paul Simon. He was also the dobro player on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, collaborating with producer, T Bone Burnett, who also produced the new Elvis album, bringing the two together. Along with Lauderdale, Dennis Crouch on upright bass, Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Mike Compton on the mandolin, and Jeff Taylor on the accordion, Douglas was in the midst of one of the most solid bluegrass ensembles ever put together to back an artist. His solos, along with the those by the other performers, were electric and filled with vitality, complimenting Elvis' masterful vocal performances.
Costello, however, not only showed once again what an incredible singer he can be, his guitar playing was truly the engine that drove the band. Like Johnny Cash, whose "chuga-chuga" strumming was always at the heart of every one of his performances, Costello's Cash-influenced strumming was a forceful presence taking his fellow musicians wherever they needed to go. He was the conductor on this "mystery train."
To name standouts in the performance would be like naming your favorite player on the 1998 New York Yankees. Sure, there was a young Derek Jeter who gave 300% and Paul O'Neil who cared more about winning than almost any other Yankee in history, but that was a team in which, without any one of its players, they never would've won over a hundred games and won the World Series, placing themselves in the record books as one of the greatest teams ever. Still, when it comes to my favorite moments of last night's performance, I will do my best to single out a few select songs, even though, like I said, every moment of the night was close to perfection.
I assumed Elvis would touch on some of the songs from King of America, not only because it was also produced by T Bone Burnett, who helped put the Sugarcanes together, but because it's an acoustic album with very subtle country music influences, particularly on my favorite track, "Our Little Angel," which Elvis, unfortunately didn't sing last night. He did, however, sing my second favorite track on the album, "Indoor Fireworks." To listen to a man, now in his fifties, sing a song about the explosive arguments couples have behind closed doors, was like listening to an aging therapist who has heard all the stories there is to hear about the subject. I already found it unbelievable that Costello hadn't even reached the age of forty when he originally wrote the song, which, on the album, is highly sophisticated in its metaphors, imagery and presentation, but to listen to him sing it almost twenty years later, brought an element of wisdom, reflection and refinement to the tune, heightening the drama written in the lyrics. It was, is, and will always be, such a beautifully sad, but cleverly crafted song. And last night, Elvis presented it better than I've ever heard him.
Other standouts, in regards to Elvis songs were his down and dirty, gritty presentation of "Blame It On Cain," from My Aim is True, his countrified version of "Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes" from the same album, his Ralph Stanley-style bluegrass version of "Mystery Dance," also from My Aim is True, and his tearfully, mournful version of "Everyday I Write the Book," a song riddled with wordplay and sarcasm, but in this performance, the sadness of the breakup that lies beneath the song rose to the surface and became the crux of Elvis' presentation.
As I've already mentioned, Elvis performed songs from his album of country standards, Almost Blue. Surprisingly, he chose to sing "Tonight, the Bottle Let me Down," the Merle Haggard song that is sung in every bar in Austin, at least twice a night. Whether he was trying to win the crowd over or not, it didn't matter. I've heard this song performed over sixty times since I moved to Austin last year and this was unquestionably the finest rendition. The musicianship, being so stellar, and Elvis, being so excitable, helped to transcend the predictability of the song and prepared the audience for a night of the most solid country/bluegrass music, despite the fact that the leader of the group is a Londoner.
Other covers that were surprising, though no less creatively presented, were Velvet Underground's "Femme Fatale," the Grateful Dead's "Friend of the Devil" and the Rolling Stones' "Happy." Elvis had performed "Femme Fatale" on his tv show, Spectacle, when Lou Reed was the musical guest and recorded it as a bonus track on Secret, Profane & Sugarcane. His version, unlike VU's, is in the time signature of 6/8, which accentuates the strumming of his guitar and is perfect for the bluegrass assemble, with each player taking his solo and adding his own flavor to the song. It was a solid performance, one of the most memorable of the night. "Friend of the Devil," I'm assuming, was performed due to Jim Lauderdale's contributions to the American Beauty Project, a two-night celebration of the Dead's classics American Beauty and Workingman's Dead. Lauderdale took the second verse and, as a lead singer, was powerful and ever present. The strangest element of the song, however, was listening to Elvis Costello sing a Grateful Dead song. It was completely unexpected but he delivered it as respectfully as he would one of his own. And again, the musicianship was so spot-on, this version beat out Lyle Lovett's cover from a couple of years back, one that still dominates the airwaves in Austin. When it comes to "Friend of the Devil," Elvis is King.
Elvis has covered Stones' songs in the past. More specifically, he covered one or two when touring acoustically with T Bone Burnett back in the Eighties. His cover of "Happy" last night was a solid, countrified version, in the vein of Johnny Cash. Surprisingly, most of the audience didn't seem to recognize the tune because when Elvis looked to them to repeat the chorus, most failed to do so. Still, audience ignorance aside, it was an excitable cover, one in which I'd love to own a copy.
The encore last night lasted a good half hour. It consisted of Elvis' most famous songs, "Alison" and "Peace, Love and Understanding," along with some more country standards and "The Scarlet Tide," which he sang as a duet with Patti Griffin. Griffin, just barely adding what Emmylou Harris had on Elvis' The Delivery Man, was a minor addition to the group. Previously in the show, her performance in "Poisoned Rose," almost ruined an extraordinary presentation by Elvis and the Sugarcanes. Here, she hadn't stuttered that badly, but one couldn't help imagining Emmylou Harris truly delivering the goods.
Ultimately, what I came away with last night, as we walked to the car, reflecting on the set that occupied the last two and a half hours of our lives, was how solid, near perfect, interesting and prolific Elvis Costello still is. And unlike Michael Jordan, he has yet to reach a point in which he must face retirement. Because of his dedication to his craft, he continues to surprise us, as his musical knowledge and abilities grow with age. Few can stake that claim. As Dylan's voice blew out long ago and Paul McCartney ceased to care about the craft of songwriting, Elvis Costello upped the ante, worked on what he does best harder than he had in the past and has helped me believe, during a somewhat skeptical time in my life, that human beings are still capable of miracles, because, to me, that's what Elvis' songs are: miracles.