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Elvis: As addictive as sugarcane

April 13, 2010 - 4:41 pm

Elvis Costello reminds me, in a weird way, of Joni Mitchell. Like many of her songs, Costello’s tend to be wanderingly unpredictable. Some of them sound like he’s making them up as he goes along, both musically as well as lyrically. He’ll hit sharp notes while you’re nodding along happily in a major key. And where a rhyme would be the obvious choice, he just might veer this way over here and give you something else to think about. Despite some of his bigger—dare I say timeless?—hits like “Alison,” “Veronica,” and “Watching the Detectives,” for example, this man is not exactly a writer of pop songs. In fact, his most recent album, Secret, Profane and Sugarcane, has been labeled “country,” though it’s country in the way Lucinda Williams or Lyle Lovett are country. Which is to say, the artist has a reputation that earns them a listen. With Sugarcane, the listener will be intrigued by the middle of track one (“Down Among The Wine and Spirits”), smitten by the end of track three (“I Felt the Chill”) and listening to the whole disc every Sunday morning.

Perhaps these are all reasons why the average age of attendees at his sold-out concert this past Sunday was—well, old with a side of male-pattern baldness. (With the exception of the two-woman Elvis Costello Fan Club who sat behind me. But more on their loud WE LOVE ELVIS MORE THAN ANYONE IN THIS THEATER woo-hooing later.) That the young ‘uns in this city, by and large, opted for other events on Sunday night is a loss almost as tragic as the reprisal of ’80s attire and neon Wayfarer sunglasses with mirrored lenses.

Costello took the stage wearing his signature glasses and a dapper suit at the Balboa Theater. He was accompanied by nothing more than a rotating cup of presumably water (possibly whiskey? He did sing about broken love, as well as a “hero dog” at one point), a slew of guitars and that imperfect but always mesmerizing, distinctive voice that undulates and growls, floats and moans. He is a generous and seasoned performer who got the crowd singing several times in a call-and-response with little more than a nod of his head.

“This is a song I hate,” Costello said. “But Seth [So-and-So] taught me how to sing it again.” His Fan Club was screaming in my ear so wildly, I didn’t catch the name of his friend. But whoever helped him get beyond his distaste for “Everyday I Write The Book” deserves credit: It was as good as ever.

Included in Costello’s set list were songs from his latest album, of course, but he also threw in some oldies for the oldies. That nobody writes melancholic love songs about “Aaryn” has always been a point of regret for me; but still, I loved that he played “Alison” and especially loved that he slowed it way down so it almost didn’t move. The effect was dramatic and stark, and I’m pretty sure my heart broke twice during Sunday’s version. Costello also included Frank Sinatra’s “All or Nothing at All” and “Good Year for the Roses” by George Jones, two simple but achingly mournful covers in his careful hands.

Costello used an electric guitar and a foot pedal to create the loud, grinding, discordant layers in “Watching the Detectives,” but then sat on the edge of the stage, away from the microphone, whispering out a song I’d never heard but which I immediately loved, “Slow Drag and Josephine,” forcing his Fan Club to settle down and get to the business of concentrating. I don’t think anyone was breathing through that song and his casual approach made the venue feel more intimate than it was.

For one hour and 40 minutes, Costello alone commanded the stage and had the audience on its feet six times before it was over. His Fan Club was tumbling over each other as they rushed the stage at the end. I half-wondered if they were going to fling their panties at the stage and I have to admit: I sort of understood this proclivity.

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