Friday, February 11, 2005

Elvis Costello and the Imposters – Hammersmith Apollo, London 10/2/05

I’ve already spent a great deal of space on this blog bemoaning lazy critical presumptions about Elvis Costello – that each album is either heralded as a ‘return to form’, or ‘further evidence of his decline and failure to recapture the spirit of This Year’s Model’ blah, blah, blah. On the Newsnight Review, Bonnie Greer and Germaine Greer, two critics admittedly not particularly well qualified to discuss songwriting, dismissed Costello’s latest album with the assertion that he had not developed as a writer and performer since the 1970s, and remained in the shadow of Bob Dylan. We all know that Dylan is the foremost inspiration for Costello’s writing, but this argument demonstrates such ignorance of Costello’s recent work that it can only be described as wrong. He has proved himself to be a master at assimilating a wide variety of influences, including classic soul, piano jazz, chamber pop, aggressive punkish rock and roll, country, folk music and classical composition, whilst retaining his own distinctive lyrical bent. Since the release of ‘When I Was Cruel’, it now appears that Costello has entered another prolific period, not just releasing three albums in quick fire succession, but also touring relentlessly across Europe and America in support of each. If anyone still considers Costello a spent force, or an ‘antique’ as he rather self-deprecatingly describes himself this evening, they could do worse than to attend one of his shows.

If you don’t feel you can rely on Costello for consistent musical quality, then you would at least have to concede that he is steadfastly dependable in terms of value for money. Tonight he gifted us with some 32 songs in 2 and a quarter hours, barely pausing for breath, yet hardly breaking into a sweat. He seemed at turns edgy, aggressive, tetchy, sympathetic, humorous and warm. It was tremendous fun for the audience, but I would not want to swap jobs with his guitar technician under any circumstances. For the numerous guitar changes, Costello remained at centre-stage, demanding that the poor man run to him as fast as humanly possible to switch his guitars. Frequently, Costello had launched the start of the next tune before he’d managed it. There were a couple of times when he was greeted only with a swift caution to hurry up. It was this impulsive energy that helped make tonight’s show so thrilling, with most of the material (even that dating from the seventies) sounding fresh and invigorated, save perhaps for the obligatory and slightly perfunctory blast through ‘Pump It Up’.

This show was precisely paced and balanced, veering from popular choices that would please the more casual of his admirers, to vastly more esoteric selections from his back catalogue. That he managed to do this whilst playing most of new LP ‘The Delivery Man’ was particularly impressive. This was not a promotional blast through the new material with a sprinkling of old favourites to keep the fans happy – instead, it demonstrated the consideration, commitment and energy of a seasoned performer. Tonight was not just a showcase for one of the giants of songwriting, it was also time to witness Costello as an impassioned and inspired bandleader, and a performer of wit and invention.

The Imposters make for a superb backing band, cooking up a storm of a groove on ‘Button My Lip’ and ‘Bedlam’, and sounding genuinely soulful on ‘Temptation’ and ‘Country Darkness’. They provide subtle ambience for ‘Almost Blue’ and an inspired reinvention of ‘When I Was Cruel’, stripped of the loops and electronic interventions that characterised the studio recording. They also demonstrate an instinctive awareness, similar to that of the E Street Band, that can only come with relentless performing as the same unit. Costello only has to raise his arm, and they immediately conclude the song. He gives a subtle signal, and the volume is dropped to a barely audible whisper. This tempestuous, unpredictable quality, bolstered by Pete Thomas’ inventive drumming and Steve Nieve’s extraordinary keyboard wizardry, makes the band as thrilling to watch as their leader.

The track selection touched on almost every facet of Costello’s chameleonic career. Particular highlights included the opening ‘Blue Chair’ and ‘Uncomplicated’ from 1986’s angry classic ‘Blood and Chocolate’, a rare airing for ‘Sulky Girl’ and the superb ‘Kinder Murder’ from Brutal Youth, faithful to the recorded templates, but still snarly and twisting. Contrast is provided by some intriguing band versions of tracks from his side-projects. ‘In The Darkest Place’ (from the Burt Bacharach collaboration ‘Painted From Memory’) and ‘You Turned To Me’ (from last year’s syrupy ‘North’, a collection of jazz piano ballads) sound elegant and emotive, and are heightened in power simply by virtue of being taken out of their respective contexts. It is on these tracks that his voice sounds most distinctive, his unusual vibrato rich in character and power. Occasionally elsewhere tonight there is evidence of some vocal frailty (just the occasional slip, crack or quashed note) that might betray the heavy demands of his touring schedule. Still, given that the likes of Liam Gallagher and Johnny Borrell have lost their voices and cancelled shows under stress from considerably lighter workloads, it would appear that Costello has preserved and developed his voice remarkably well over the years. Just compare him with the worn and frequently incomprehensible babblings of contemporary Bob Dylan. He has retained a mastery over diction and phrasing that Dylan has sadly lost.

He has also expanded his ability to engage with the audience in more recent years. The chanting on recent single ‘Monkey To Man’ provides the perfect opportunity for some call-and-response shenanigans. Rather less obviously, he collapses to his knees and inserts a strange rendition of ‘Suspicious Minds’ into ‘Alison’, and sits on the edge of the stage for a subtle and engaging reading of ‘Almost Blue’. His best trick is something he now seems to do at every gig, but to which he adds an exciting new dimension this evening. This is his tendency to sing at full projection, standing well away from the microphone. Impressively, his voice carries to the back of the venue. What might appear as a tiresome display of virtuosity works brilliantly because of the context. The effect heightens the torrid intensity of ‘I Want You’, and the palpable drama of ‘The Delivery Man’. It also adds a more playful dimension to ‘Hidden Charms’, for which he steps away from the microphone to vocalise into the well-aged pick-ups of his most recent guitar purchase, apparently for a mere $150.

As well as these inspired selections, he also provides plenty of instantly recognisable classics. ‘(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea’ still sounds driving and energised, whilst ‘A Good Year For The Roses’ is splendidly elegiac. ‘Radio Radio’ and ‘Blame It On Cain’ sound spirited, and ‘Pump It Up’, whilst easily sounding the most dated choice in this set, pleases the crowd and finally tempts them into standing up. The new material was warmly received, and stood up well against this torrent of standards. Placed among a broad range of material, many of the tracks on ‘The Delivery Man’ felt like expertly crafted summaries of Costello’s thematic and musical concerns so far, particularly with the spirit of Dan Penn being invoked on the masterful ‘Country Darkness’ and the dramatic ‘Either Side Of The Same Town’. He manages to get away with performing the duets without the presence of Emmylou Harris (instead we get ‘Daveylou’ Farragher on harmony vocals, immensely able, but lacking the counterpoint of a female perspective). ‘Nothing Clings Like Ivy’ and ‘Heart Shaped Bruise’ are elegant dissections of relationships, powerfully communicated in live performance as well as on record.

There was no time wasting with the tiresome business of encores, although the band clearly could have milked the considerable applause for much longer had they felt the need. After introducing the band over the pounding backbeat of ‘Pump It Up’, he continued to rapidly plough through some more popular favourites, including the requested ‘Shipbuilding’ and Nick Lowe’s ‘(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding’. At last, this unusually reticent crowd began to acknowledge the depth and quality of the performance, and Costello brilliantly, if somewhat perversely, declined to sustain an enervated mood during what might have passed for encores. He followed upbeat numbers with ballads, leaving the audience perplexed as to whether they should remain standing or simply sit back down again. In recent years, his concerts have usually been brought to a brilliantly uncomfortable conclusion with ‘ I Want You’. This time he bravely follows it with ‘The Scarlet Tide’, originally composed for the Cold Mountain soundtrack (easily the best thing about that turgid and unconvincing movie), now also the closing track on ‘The Delivery Man’. I found it strangely moving this evening, an emotional conclusion to an outstanding performance of great range and depth.

I can’t resist a brief rant to conclude – the atmosphere was fairly stilted anyway as an all-seated theatre performance, but the empty seats around us didn’t help. John Kell (see in the next few days – I have no doubt he’ll be able to deliver a more concise and informed review than this one) was left unable to get a seat in the stalls from any of the official outlets. This implies to me that these seats were bought out by touts or the regular ebay dwellers that then proved unable to sell them at inflated prices. This infuriates me greatly as Costello is an artist easily capable of selling out this size of venue, who, despite being promoted by the fundamentalists at Clear Channel, has managed to keep his ticket prices at an almost affordable level over the last few years.

Erin McKeown – Bar Academy, Islington 9/2/05

Whilst the Costello gig had been impressive particularly because of the compelling interaction between bandleader and band, this intimate show from the quite wonderful Erin McKeown was a peerless lesson in how to engage an audience as a solo performer. Having been struck by her rendition of ‘Strung-Lo’ on a Jools Holland show a couple of years ago, I was aware that she was a talented guitar player and distinctive singer, but I was still unprepared for just how charming and convincing a show this would be.

McKeown is touring the UK with her friend, neighbour and fellow songwriter Kris Delmhorst, so it is worth spending a few brief words discussing her complementary and appealing support set. Her songs are arguably a little more generic than the jazz/country/musical melanges of Ms. McKeown, but no less touching or affecting. Her voice seemed mostly mellifluous and elegant, although she sometimes overdid the Emmylou Harris trick of slipping between vocal registers at the end of phrases. She clearly had some Bostonian followers in the audience this evening, and they enabled her to gain confidence, appearing playful and endearing on stage. It was particularly pleasing to see McKeown and Delmhorst sing and play together, in both headline and support slots, and this was a performance refreshingly free from ego. In fact, their voices intertwined with consummate ease.

McKeown’s headline set was something of a revelation for me. Stripped of the ornate arrangements that characterised the criminally overlooked ‘Grand’ album, the songs still sounded elaborate and lyrical (in all senses of the word). It’s a lazy and easy comment to make when reviewing solo gigs – but it really is one of the hardest challenges a performer can face to communicate with an audience when armed with just a microphone and guitar. McKeown clearly had such a mastery over her own spindly and twisty material that she made this look easy. She handled the difficult phrasing and unusual cadences with admirable clarity, and even premiered new material as if it were a well worn-in old pair of boots, particularly the marvellous ‘To The Stars’.

She is a literate, wordy songwriter, but also adept at handling everyday emotions and is highly sensitive to environment and surroundings. Most of her songs have a narrative quality to them, and her voice is one of wisdom and experience that belies her youth and verve. She managed to captivate my attention throughout the duration of this performance, engaging the audience in call-and-response chanting, even getting us to sing along on ‘Born To Hum’ whilst admirably maintaining her own concentration. In fact, concentration may be entirely the wrong word here, because throughout she seemed so relaxed and at ease as to be able to pick out intricate guitar lines whilst simultaneously controlling complex melodies.

Her guitar playing is her killer asset. She has mastered a wide variety of styles, from the bluesy twang of ‘Blackbirds’, to the elaborate pop chord progressions of ‘Slung Lo’ and ‘Cinematic’. She has the great skill of displaying dazzling musicianship without ever appearing blandly virtuosic or overly complex. She still has a commanding understanding of the value of an infectious melody or an identifiable theme.

Many of her songs have both – ‘A Better Wife’ is touching, and the wry gender subversion of ‘La Petite Mort’ made for the night’s most straightforwardly entertaining moment. ‘James!’, a song in which she dispenses relationship advice to a friend (although she confessed to initially encouraging him in his futile quest after the army boy next door), is particularly brilliant. Even without the horns, it is a distinctive song of considerable charm – and if anything, it’s delicate humour and honesty cut through more clearly in its acoustic rendition here.
Whilst she is an endearingly down-to-earth and modest performer, her considerable talent convinces throughout. Her new album promises to be every bit as distinctive and impressive as the previous two – hopefully she will return to the UK in support of it.

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