Winston-Salem Journal, April 26, 2007

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Winston-Salem Journal
  • 2007 April 26

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(What's so funny 'bout) Elvis Costello
playing at MerleFest?


Ed Bumgardner

Twin sons Dexter and Frank, barely 4 months old, were fed, content and asleep. A “lively household” had gone briefly, blissfully silent. Voila! A precious moment of quality time for Elvis Costello, the famed British singer and songwriter, and his bride of three years, Diana Krall, the beautiful and talented jazz singer and musician.

The chance to make beautiful music together loomed large.

So Costello, back in Manhattan, still buzzing from an evening in Las Vegas — he had performed an acoustic version of “76 Trombones” at a numerically themed musical-charity event the night before — did what came naturally. He got on the blower to talk about music — an endlessly provocative topic for discourse and debate for the learned, opinionated and charmingly witty Costello.

Specifically, he was eager to express his delight about his appearance at MerleFest, the four-day, annual celebration of roots and acoustic music held at Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro.

“There seems to be a bit of wonderment that I am actually playing there,” Costello said. “I was getting on the plane in Las Vegas yesterday, and the pilot looked at me and said, ‘I hear you’re playing at MerleFest.’ There was a certain amount of disbelief in his voice. Not wanting an upset pilot, I told him that I was indeed playing there and assured him that all would be fine.

“It doesn’t seem at all unusual to me.” He chuckled. “But then that’s me, isn’t it?”

Costello pointed out to skeptics who know him only from his early years as a quasi-New Wave rock peculiarity that he harbors deep affection for American roots music and has recorded the music throughout his career — recently appearing at the Grand Ole Opry with Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch.

As he pointed out, laughing, he’s never been what anyone thought he should be or what anybody thought he was. So why should anyone with more than a passing knowledge of who he is or what feeds his intellect be surprised that he would be honored to share a stage with roots musicians?

“I’ve always seen various genres of music as tools to help me build a better musical vocabulary,” he said. “I love folk music, country music. My album Almost Blue (1981) was done in Nashville, my homage to country music as filtered through who I am. I’ve recorded with George Jones and Alison Krauss.

“Country and folk music, along with blues, are great musical vehicles for storytelling, so they naturally appeal to that side of what I do. Plus, I like the organic premise of the festival. Contrary to popular notion, electricity is not life itself.”

Costello has earned respect for his fearless musical curiosity, deep musical knowledge and far-reaching creativity and intellect. His early albums — spiked with such classic songs as “Alison,” “Watching The Detectives,” “Radio, Radio,” “Pump It Up” and “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding” — were the work of a songwriter determined to capture the energy of rock ’n’ roll and attach it to songs that moved in sophisticated ways uncommon to the genre.

His sense of melody was elegant and highly cultivated, and his chord progressions often pushed far beyond rock’s three-chord foundation.

“I don’t like predictable songs, but I also don’t want to throw around chords just to seem clever,” Costello said. “Ideally, three chords is two chords too many for me. I have written one-chord songs — they just don’t seem like one-chord songs because of what is going on within them.

“Hank Williams and Willie Dixon rarely needed more than three chords for their songs, and I would never dare to compare what I do to the brilliance of their work.”

Costello’s love of the language also quickly separated him from his contemporaries. His vocabulary runs as large and deep as his imagination, but he admits that his affinity for dense metaphors, thick with in-jokes and sharp word play, occasionally verged on being incomprehensible. “I suppose,” he said. “It has been said that I am rock ’n’ roll’s Scrabble champion.”

Costello’s contributions with his band, The Attractions, brought about an induction into the Rock ’n Roll Hall of Fame in 2003. His new band, The Imposters, is essentially The Attractions with a new bassist.

But creative restlessness has carried Costello far beyond the confines of rock. He has recorded with a chamber-music ensemble and an international big band. He has written ballets and an unreleased opera. He has collaborated with opera singer Anne Sofie von Otter, jazz musicians Bill Frisell and Marion McPartand, songwriters Burt Bacharach and Allen Toussaint, and ex-Beatle Paul McCartney, among many others.

He doesn’t see these projects as diversions but as steps in a continuing journey. “I am not responsible for people who obsessively want to limit what I do to a single thing. I couldn’t stand to be one of those dreadful acts trading in nostalgia, whittling down 30 years of music into a 10-minute medley — God, I hate medleys — and basking in the applause as the audience recognize the one big hit, even though the band no longer has any emotional ties to the song.

“I won’t play any song that I don’t feel a tie to anymore. There are always more songs. I have five in my head right now.”

He is similarly unimpressed by the state of mainstream rock right now. “Down the middle, it’s quite awful. Listening to these young, dastardly villains try to sound original is bit like trying to follow a tap-dancing chicken on a hot plate. The music is unsexy, unswinging, trumped-up garbage. I recoil at such pantomime.”

He paused. “I still love rock music, but what I love is doomed to live in the margins. And that’s not a bad place to be. I’ve lived there for years now. Quite comfortable, actually.”

Costello said he is no longer in any hurry to release albums. “I have to feel passionate about the music I make. I’m not going to just toss something out there. No reason to stumble about.

“That’s one of the reasons I’m so looking forward to MerleFest. There is a genuine sense of community about that music, and it’s all music made for the right reasons.

“To even play on the same stage as Doc Watson just thrills me beyond words — which is saying something.”

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Winston-Salem Journal, April 26, 2007


Ed Bumgardner profiles Elvis Costello ahead of his appearance at MerleFest, Friday, April 27, 2007, Wilkesboro, NC.


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