May 202011

Hero Ain't Nothing But a Singer-Songwriter

A few month ago, when this show was announced, I had my doubts. That night my wife, interrupted yet another of my dinnertime rants and said, “Maybe he’ll play more of his old songs if he’s going to use the spinning wheel.” We considered going to see Elvis Costello on his Revolver Tour after all, even bringing our boys. It might be the last, decent Costello show the world will ever see, we concluded, ominously, envisioning a similar future scenario a friend experienced a few years ago, when he took his son to see a battered Bob Dylan, the Shell of His Dylan, making no effort to engage his audience, playing barely recognizable versions of any songs people wanted to hear and a bunch of stuff off his last half dozen “comeback” albums, that is, albums that have had the good sense not to tone it down and not stomp out the remaining sparks that fly off an artist who once shone as bright as the sun.

Three songs into Thursday night’s Elvis Costello & The Imposters’ show at Philadelphia’s Tower Theater, with a setlist dictated, in large part, by the the Spinning Songbook I realized the joy and sense of satisfaction that I was feeling would carry me through whatever post-Nick Lowe–produced lowpoints the wheel might dictate. After storming out of the gates with a 4- or 5-song pub rock reaffirming segue that included “Hope You’re Happy Now,” Lowe’s “Heart of the City,” and “Radio Radio” he called his first audience member up to spin…”Human Hands”! The wheel was especially giving to fans of Get Happy!! and Imperial Bedroom, culminating in a 4-song “Time” set of “Clowntime Is Over” (slower, B-side version), “Strict Time” (!!!), “Man Out of Time,” and The Rolling Stones‘ “Out of Time.” The majestic “Man Out of Time” is a song that has ever-increasing personal relevance as the high heel that was a young me is ground down. Hearing it helped me put a lot of my emotion-packed day’s events in perspective. At this point in the set I knew that the initial burst of joy would not be exhausted.

Bring on overblown turds like “I Want You” and “Shot With His Own Gun”! I puffed out my mind’s chest and shouted to myself, but each spin of the wheel bypassed the turds and landed on winners: “Watching the Detectives,” “Hoover Factory,” “Black and White World”… Maybe the only song I didn’t care to hear all night was “Pills and Soap,” a poor-man’s “Shot With His Own Gun” that Elvis and Steve Nieve hammed up to the point of entertaining cabaret. Elvis paced through the crowd and sung from various seats, even sitting on a man’s lap at one point.

To give the wheel time to refresh, I suppose, he occasionally threw in some of his own choices, including “Shabby Doll,” and covers, such as Paul McCartney‘s “Let Me Roll It” and The Who‘s “Substitute.” Everything was just right. Costello’s professionalism and respect for his audience and back catalog were admirable. Pete Thomas is still the Greatest Drummer in the Game. Nieve still wears the mantle he inherited from Garth Hudson as Rock’s Most Dangerous Wildcard. Even the big, goofy “imposter” bassist, whose lack of juice and narrow stance will always leave me wanting Bruce Thomas, delivered a professional set and hit all his octave leaps. It’s nice that he can sing backing vocals, too, something the original Attractions could never quite deliver.

My wife and I loved the show. Our kids loved the show. Our little guy didn’t get to hear his two favorites, “Opportunity” and “The Angels Want to Wear My Red Shoes,” but our older boy raised his fist when the wheel landed on “Black and White World.” It was probably the second-best Costello show of the many I’ve seen, running behind only his majestic JKF show opening for Genesis, of all bands!

The show wasn’t even marred by a 2-song, solo pre-encore of Elvis plucking out jazz chords on a tiny acoustic guitar and singing his version of McCartney’s Songs for Me Auntie tunes. The second song, might have been “God’s Comic,” “Jimmie Standing in the Rain,” was a selection that my high-heeled self of days past might have grumbled over. Midway through the song two numbskulls shouted out stuff like, “Ah, come on! Play something we want to hear!” The kind of thing I would have thought if not come close to shouting out myself if I were back at the outdoor Mann Music Center on a hot, humid Philadelphia summer’s day watching a fat, bearded Costello play songs off Mighty Like a Turd with Marc Ribot showing his complete inability to play “real” guitar parts on any song requiring a simple Steve Cropper lick—and the fat, bearded Costello complaining about how “fucking hot” it was on stage. That July day my wife actually shouted out, “Why don’t you lose some weight, shave that beard, and take off the jacket!” By this point my friend Townsman machinery and his wife had long split, maybe 4 songs into the show’s ballad-heavy intro, grumbling, “I didn’t come here to see fucking Celine Dione!” There would be no grumbling from us last night. When the knuckleheads attempted to shout down Costello’s brief foray into Auntie Songs he nicely responded, “Ah, but you want to hear this—and we’ve got plenty of time!” Like the rest of the audience, I had Elvis’ back. What more could we want from the guy last night? Sure, I allowed myself a brief smile over the triumph of hearing someone call bullshit on that part of his catalog, but I was ready to send those two packing, to send them back to their copies of Steve Miller Band’s Greatest Hits.

Thank you, Elvis. I need to be reminded now and then that I still have some heroes.


  15 Responses to “Concert Review: Elvis Costello & The Imposters & The Spinning Songbook at The Tower”

  1. tonyola

    Glad you enjoyed the show and that Elvis still has his mojo. The only time I got to see him was in Orlando with the Attractions in May, 1978. A really intense if somewhat short show – 14 songs and no encore.

  2. hrrundivbakshi

    Great review, Mod! I shall have to check on DC dates (assuming I haven’t missed them already).

  3. I only wish this tour was swinging throught the mighty South. I would definitely be there. I’m really glad that you had a good experience with EC. Sometimes our heros don’t let us down.


  4. misterioso

    Nice review Mod. It almost makes me sorry not to have seen Elvis since ’94 on the Brutal Youth tour, but not quite.

  5. diskojoe

    It’s nice to know that EC has corrected a recent shortcoming of modern music, i.e., a lack of go-go girls. He should have had two of them on either side of the stage, ala the old Hullaballo Hollywood-Au-Go-Go.

    Seriously, that was a pretty half-decent setlist & I’m in complete agreement w/misterioso (’94 was also my last time).

  6. machinery

    Sounds like a great show! Looks like some old wounds were healed last night.

  7. misterioso

    I don’t know why, but I have this mental image of Mod screaming himself hoarse during “Hoover Factory” calling out “Play Dr. Luther’s Assistant! Just play it! Dr. Luther’s Assistant!!!! C’mon!!!!”

  8. Ha! I am pretty sure I was the first dude to let out a hearty Yeah! when I realized he was leading the band into “Let Me Roll It.”

  9. misterioso

    “Yeah! Now play Mamunia! C’mon!! Play it, man!!!!!”

  10. I’m glad you decided to go. I generally try not to miss Costello. Yeah, I’ve nearly lost any interest in his albums, but I think he puts on consistently good shows. I missed the Philadelphia stand of Mighty Like a Turd Tour because I was in California for work, but I did see him at a theater there and it was actually really good. I think the bass player in that group, Jerry Scheff, is one of the few guys anywhere near the league of Bruce Thomas. Faragher is good, I liked his playing with Cracker, Hiatt and on the Elvis albums, but live, especially when they hit something like “Living in Paradise”, it’s just so audibly not the same.

    When he came out with that four song opener, including Heart of the City, I immediately thought of you skipping the show because you were worried about the uneven pacing!

    By the way, my least favorite Costello show was at the Tower on the Armed Forces Tour. They sounded horrible, Nieve had a pile of new, extremely crappy sounding 80’s polysynths, and the show seemed completely perfunctory. Although it didn’t sound anything like the Armed Forces album, it had a lot of the overreaching shrillness that has always made that album seem like a letdown from the one before and after. He came back on for an encore, however, and blasted about 6 winners in a row.

    By the way, I really liked Everyday I Write Book, which I consider such a lightweight triviality. Last night, there was something so nifty about the rhythm section groove that I could hear why they would like playing that one, even though as a song it seems really rote.

  11. geo, you hit on two key things that I thought about too! Every few times I’ve seen Costello it’s clear that Nieve just made a trip to the music store and picked up some new, fancy gear that he’d play to death. It was great to hear him stick with traditional keyboards last night. I also LOVED that version of “Everyday I Write the Book”! Like you, I never care to listen to the recorded version and previously found live versions to be little more than a means to satisfy the ladies. Last night’s groove was just right!

  12. ladymisskirroyale

    I believe that Costello may have used the mighty wheel in his ’89 tour, if my mind is cooperating with my recollections. I haven’t seen him since. The experience of watching a large segment of the bleachers collapse during “Accidents Will Happen” is hard for me to want to top.

    Great review. However, Mr. Royale and I would take umbrage at the dissing of Mark Ribot: we have a serious amount of his songbook here and I believe it does indicate his ability to use that guitar for good not evil.

  13. Yes, he’s a very good guitarist in the right setting, but he had no clue what to do on Costello’s songs. Compare his playing on Costello’s back catalog on the Mighty Like a Turd tour to Martin Belmont’s last-minute fill-in work with Costello at the Hope and Anchor in 1980 and you may hear what I mean.

  14. ladymisskirroyale

    Perhaps Costello set certain parameters for the MLAT tour?

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