2005, Rasputin Manifesto
The day of Elvis Costello's appearance at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland on March 22 was pretty miserable. Rain, rain, more rain, and did I mention rain? Days like those tend to keep me indoors. Good thing the Paramount is so close to the Bart station. I didn't have to deal with too much precipitation as I swiftly made my way to the venue after rushing up from under the ground. I traveled there underground, and arrived at one of the highest seats in the house - in the very last row of the balcony section.
Tift Merritt opened, and though her band rocked convincingly enough, Tift was noticeably un-rock n' roll in her demeanor. For one, of all the performers I've seen screw up the name of the town they're playing in - I've lost count of how many artists I've heard call Mansfield or Foxboro "Boston" - Tift Merritt is the only performer I've heard apologize multiple times for such an error. When she said, "it's great to be back in San Francisco," eliciting some boos and shouts of "Oakland!" she was likely most embarrassed for her keyboard player, Danny Eisenberg, who is an Oakland native.
And though she danced around on stage when she wasn't at a keyboard or playing a guitar, she did not appear all that comfortable without the security of an instrument. She pulled it off though, and her set was a solid one filled with songs recalling Fleetwood Mac and classic southern rock.
But probably the most telling move indicating she wasn't a true rocker was her declaration of herself as a "Lost Highway recording artist." She comes off like a great employee, and an easy person to work with. Not rock n' roll, no way. She'd never make it as a diva. But in a way, it was refreshing to see and hear someone with a work ethic that stretches beyond the music. If that nice-girl attitude keeps her in business for 10 or so more years, maybe there will be hope for us all.
Now Elvis, on the other hand, has been irreverent throughout most of his career, and not only is he still around, he's still vital and inspiring. He appropriated the first name of the King Of Rock n' Roll, he threw Lorne Michaels for a loop by changing the song her performed on Saturday Night Live, he's written enough bitter, cynical lyrics to give us all endless nasty quotes to throw at our enemies, and these days he's even taking shots at critics (see Billboard Magazine's report on his SXSW appearance this year) of his reissues and the sagging music industry that is still supporting him, to an extent. All the time, he retains his wit and a smile.
In the end, though, it's the music that makes the artist. All the rest is gravy. Even if he didn't tell wiseguy tales that night of picking up a cheap guitar in Clarksdale, Mississippi, that allegedly belonged to George Harrison ("fuck it, I'll sell my guitar!" Elvis sarcastically imagined George saying to himself while just happening to pass through Clarksdale on a whim), or observing the pathetic singles at a lonely hearts club in Liverpool ("no, not that lonely hearts club!" he said, enjoying a cute Beatles reference) where he played in the early 1970s, Elvis' set would have still been a breathtaking and sometimes overwhelming downpour of song.
The opening one-two punch of "Blue Chair" and "Uncomplicated" was a bold and moving way to start. Signature keyboard fills from Steve Nieve were everywhere, and Elvis only had to stick his head out while clapping his hands to get the crowd to follow his lead. One would think Elvis was back with the Attractions, and in a way he was. The only difference was Danny Faragher was on bass instead of Bruce Thomas, and they now call themselves the Imposters.
One after another, Elvis and his Imposters knocked out songs from across his vast catalog. From early classics like "Watching The Detectives," and "I Don't Want To Go To Chelsea," to "Clubland" and "All King Horse," to fresh reworkings of "Blame It On Cain," Willie Dixon's "Hidden Charms" and Hank Williams' "How Come You Don't Love Me Like You Used To Do," Elvis effortlessly surveyed most (but not all) of the musical terrain he has covered on record since his 1977 debut.
Anyone who showed up to hear "Alison," "Veronica," and "Everyday I Write The Book" may have been slightly disappointed. Nobody really seemed to mind, though. I didn't hear anyone shouting these titles (or any titles, for that matter), though I did witness some hearty approval for "In The Darkest Place," from Elvis' 1998 album with Burt Bacharach, Painted From Memory (Mercury). I myself got most excited over "Our Little Angel" and "Suit Of Lights," from my personal favorite Elvis LP, King Of America (Rhino) -- those and the opening couple from Blood And Chocolate (Rhino).
But even with all the obscure catalog nuggets and classic early singles, Elvis made it clear that he is still very much living in the present by featuring no less than seven cuts from his latest album, The Delivery Man (Lost Highway). Some of them, like the title track and "Monkey To Man," were quite faithfully replicated and, perhaps coincidentally, among the best received of the new tunes.
Others received special or improved treatment. "There's A Story In Your Voice" benefited from a looser, more swinging approach, and an unaccompanied lead vocal. The studio version with Lucinda Williams sounds too busy for my ears, so this live treatment was a marked improvement.
Then there was "Either Side Of The Same Town," an old school-styled soul ballad worthy of someone like, say, Percy Sledge. When Elvis stepped away from the mic and belted out a bit of the tune unamplified, he still soared and earned some extra handclaps. He repeated this "trick" with the more subdued closing tune for the evening, "The Scarlet Tide." The purity of this gentle original folk tune was a beautiful way to end the show.
Oh, and lest we forget, what IS so funny about peace, love and understanding? Nick Lowe's rhetorical question was aired just before "The Scarlet Tide," and one can safely assume that everyone in the house was happy to hear it.
Happier still was I to find that the rain had eased up considerably when we were finally sent home, though that hardly mattered. Elvis Costello proved that he is still an inspiring performer and adventurous composer, and for that, it would have been alright if it was raining monkeys outside.