Australian Stage, October 18, 2009

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Elvis Costello

Enmore Theatre, Sydney

Lloyd Bradford Syke

If Elvis Presley was the pelvis of rock 'n' roll, then his latter-day namesake, Mr Costello, is surely the cerebral appendage. The head, and shoulders, on the twisting body. And the shoulders are broad. Broad enough to cross genres, gulfs and oceans.

This tour has brought only Elvis and his guitars. As Bernard Zuel has rather uncharitably pointed out, E is not the greatest guitarist the world's ever seen, but that would seem to miss the point. He doesn't pretend to be. And he makes the utmost of what skills he has. There are enough technicians and session musos out there to fulfil the role of guitar god. And while, thanks to Bernard, I did find myself fantasising about Mr Costello focussing entirely on the singing and raconteuring while, say Tommy Emmanuel (because he, too, can deftly cross so many musical borders) wielded the axes, I was also put in mind of Bob Dylan, and Woody Guthrie, neither of whom will ever be inducted to any guitar god halls of fame, I don't think. Yet no one seems to mind, because they've so much more to offer.

So it is with Elvis. It seems to me the criticism (which I feel strangely obliged to address) is arguably more a reflection of our exponentially increased expectations, in all things, too. Back in the day, it was more than enough for Woody to climb up to a makeshift stage, strum a few chords and galvanise the downtrodden of a continent with soothsaying, truth-saying songs. If Woody was playing now, he'd probably be expected to play like Leo Kottke, to boot.

His catalogue of songs and style is now vast and I had the distinct sense he was picking and choosing, rather than adhering to any hard-and-fast set list. He had sheet music, or at least a music stand with something on it; I imagine even his well-wired mind, with its incomparable labyrinth of neural and musical pathways has trouble remembering every chord.

I couldn't begin to tell you (since I've far from a photographic memory and rarely attempt the unimaginable feat of scribbling in the dark) what, or even how many, songs he played. I lost track. And count. Suffice to say, it was around 2½ very solid hours, or more, of Elvis, and his guitars, plus a few effects here-and-there.

There was a pervasive sense old Dec was playin' with us. I've little doubt he could and would've played through the night, if only the middle-aged audience had half as much energy and commitment as he. There's no stopping the bloke! Even setting aside his tremendous catalogue (it's sheer size and superlative quality), you've gotta respect a cove who's still so fucking crazy, about music, after all these years. When he professes "it's a lifelong thing," he really, really means it.

His excursions on guitar, especially semi-acoustic, were out there, indeed, even by Hendrix standards. He was bending it like Beckham, only moreso, testing the limits of our tolerance and imagination, as well as his own. It's this edginess that sets him apart from rock's "middle-class," with its expanding waistline (MacManus has trimmed down to 80s svelteness), conventionality and tendency to think within the square.

It's almost impossible and all-too-arbitrary to pick highlights. Nonetheless, I, like so much of the audience, even in pretending to know and embrace most, or all, of what the man has done, was hoping for a sprinkling of the way-back catalogue, and our patience (for, despite mostly unintelligible shouted suggestions, he played 'em in his own sweet time) was rewarded. Are there better, more invigorated (or invigorating) songs than "Pump It Up"? I've been on tenterhooks, waiting for 'em.

"Pump It Up" is apt, since it seems to embody Elvis' ethos: "Pump it up, when you don't really need it; pump it up, until you can feel it." Some might see excess, self-indulgence and even a hint of narcissism in his decision to play so long. There was even a certain sense of "dirty looks," a kind of Mexican standoff, between audience and performer; a still punkish "fuck you!," "I'll work hard to earn your respect, but you have to earn mine as well" attitude. I see something else, though. A man so passionate, so connected, so defined, fired by and committed to songs, music and his craft, that he just can't help himself. Is there anything more admirable in human endeavour?

Of course, EC had a musical pedigree, in that his father was a jazz bandleader. Indeed, he self-deprecatingly (or sarcastically, it was hard to tell) described his dad as the real singer in the family. Certainly, he had stature in his own right, and was a benefactor in Declan's musical education, at least insofar as passing on records of the day that were given to him. (As evidenced in a passionate interpolation of a Beatles song, last night, Elvis showed reverence for the music that insinuated rock 'n' roll into his soul.) So the emerging Elvis became intimate with the likes of The Kinks and The Who, not to mention Motown. He soon emerged from his daytime chrysalis as a computer operator (the ocular strain delivering his trademark specs), playing Liverpool clubs at night, into the London scene.

But new wave-cum-punk wasn't his first outing, as many might assume. It was a country-rock outfit, Flip City. He became frontman and songwriter. That was 1974. So it's kind of full-circle, with the release of his latest, the irresistible Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, an outing Randy Lewis of the LA Times, has described eloquently: "he's taken on a big one, a song cycle of sorts, incorporating themes that wind like the muddy Mississippi through the cultural legacy of the American South, and the tragic secrets and varied stripes of love; obsessive, unrequited and misfired."

But songs from this source aren't always the straight-ahead country of which he's also capable (he's co-written with Loretta Lynn, for example). He gave us a veritable art song, one of many based on stories or ideas that have captured his imagination, in "She Was No Good" (which cried out for pedal steel), the tale of mid-19th-century European singing sensation Jenny Lind's US tour, sponsored by P. T. Barnum. The so-called Swedish nightingale (like Elvis, born with a different name), an operatic soprano, achieved hysterical rock star status. I'm not sure what aspect of the story he's seized upon, for his words recount a rough, eventful stint on a riverboat, where the fineries to which Ms Lind was accustomed were submerged by drunken musicians and the head of steam which was to culminate in civil war.

Costello's lyrical and musical evocations enable us to fully inhabit other worlds, and other times: he's a genius with language, creative compelling narratives, but also painting vivid pictures. He can play and tease, too, in a Shakespearean way, as with "How Deep Is The Red," from the new album: "Is this not a pretty tale? Is this not a riddle? A bow shoots arrows through the air; a bow drags notes from a fiddle." Thus, in a few phrases, he encapsulates the conundrum that is the human condition, wherein we find ourselves equally and incongruously capable of violent, destructive acts, cheek-and-jowl with beautiful, creative ones. How delightful and redemptive, that we can find the Byronic, even amidst the moronic, in contemporary culture. The very same song might well please, or outrage, Christians, too ("how deep is the red our redeemer bled?"), depending on how the composer's intentions are perceived, and received. Yet it's the provocation, the invitation to question and think, that's really important.

There's more playing with fire and brimstone, in the sultry title track form the newie, in which sins of the flesh are relished, but backgrounded by the down-the-track, but imminent threat of burning in hell. It's deliciously wry: "It's not very far from sulphur to sugarcane; everywhere I travel the pretty girls call my name; I give them a squeeze and they shoot me a wink, I buy their hard-headed husbands a long cool drink; you better come up smelling sweet, 'cos you're a long time stinking." It also captures the very essence of the south: you can almost see the steam rising over the bayou.

If unreliable memory serves, Veronica was the second song of the night (and, for many, perhaps, the song of the night). It parallels our own Cold Chisel's "Choirgirl" as perhaps the most poignant and affecting ever penned about a woman (not just any woman, but his grandmother) who's lamplight is slowly, tragically, and inevitably, fading. "Is it all in that pretty, little head of yours? What goes on in that place in the dark? Well, I used to know a girl and I would have sworn her name was Veronica; she used to have a carefree mind of her own and a delicate look in her eye. These days, I'm afraid, she's not even sure if her name is Veronica." Something so many of us have seen. Or will see. And did you know it was co-written with McCartney?

Costello's voice is also worthy of comment. It's powerful. He often sang way off-mic, and could be heard and understood clearly. I reckon he could have performed the whole show mic-less. Given that he has neither, in pure terms, the most attractive or beautiful voice, it's, presumably, his overwhelming depth and force of feeling and idiosyncratic style which reaches the parts other voices can't, and don't. After all, he can, at times, shamelessly strangle his own lyrics.

I could wax lyrically for hours (but not as lyrically, or for as many hours, I suspect, as the man himself), but you get the drift, I hope. A commanding, charismatic presence. A commanding, charismatic songwriter. A thoroughly enigmatic, energised, and energising, individual. And God knows, in a generic, "me too!," same-same world, we need more of those.

Elvis Costello, in a way, can't decide whether he's Bob Dylan, or Buddy Holly (and it's not just the glasses). In truth, he's both. Neither. And more. Long live the king! Especially since the other one's dead. With his ochre Stetson (I think, for I'm no milliner) and dark suit, he's more like a sartorially resplendent emperor.

Back on planet earth, the mix could have been better. A lot better. More open, natural and warm. And who turned off the bloody air-conditioning (or so it seemed)?! I could barely breathe for the last hour and it's not the first time I've had cause to complain. Give us a break! And the old theatre seats should never have been removed from the old theatre, neither.

I long for a day, or a way, in which we might get to see and hear Elvis in more intimate surroundings: the Enmore's sister venue, The Factory Theatre, for example. He lends himself, more and more, methinks, to a kind of cabaret. At least one of his Elvises does: he's nothing, if not mercurial.

And let's not forget support, Shelley Harland, a transcontinental Pommy-born sheila who does possess a truly beautiful voice, adept at singing very pretty country crossover songs, like Wonder, from her apparently laid back album, Red Leaf. It's a long story, but she's already caught the diverse attention of John Cale and Tim Powles of The Church. She's no slouch in the lyrical department, either: "In the light of the moon, I'm shying away from sleep, and I'm here, going through letters and souvenirs, reading the blueprints of my life, but life didn't turn out to be what I had in mind." Tell me about it, Shells! Expect big things.

Tags: Enmore TheatreSydneyAustraliaElvis PresleyBob DylanWoody GuthrieJimi HendrixDeclan MacManusPump It UpRoss MacManusThe BeatlesNew AmsterdamYou've Got To Hide Your Love AwayThe KinksThe WhoMotownFlip CitySecret, Profane & SugarcaneLoretta LynnShe Was No GoodJenny LindP.T. BarnumWilliam ShakespeareHow Deep Is The Red?Sulphur To SugarcaneVeronicaPaul McCartneyBuddy HollyShelley HarlandBernard Zuel

© Australian Stage Online


Australian Stage, October 18, 2009

Lloyd Bradford Syke reviews Elvis Costello and opening act Shelley Harland, Saturday, October 17, 2009, Enmore Theatre, Sydney, Australia.


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