Nashville Scene: The Spin: 23rd June, 2014
The Spin has seen Elvis Costello perform as many things over the years: the seething, syllable-spitting frontman of a tightly wound unit called The Attractions, one sweltering night in 1984 at Vanderbilt's Memorial Gym; the expansive focal point of a country-rock outfit called The Confederates, consisting of former Elvis 1.0 sidemen and early producer Nick Lowe, again at Memorial in 1986; an amusingly seedy game-show host playing songs off an enormous spinning wheel some 25 years later on the stage of the Ryman. But over the course of nearly a dozen shows in 30 years, there are two things we've never seen Costello be: solo for the length of a concert, and disengaged.
Scratch one of those off the list.
All those earlier guises (or variations thereof) put in appearances Saturday night as Costello ransacked one of rock's most voluminous catalogs at the Ryman, a stage that ought to award him a plaque at this juncture. Granted, solo shows are rarely our favorite way to see an artist, and not just because they're missing the tension, sparks of inspiration and musical color that result from other players. Over the years we've seen them bring out the worst in performers, from rote recitation of past glories to shameless wallows in audience adoration.
But if Costello's 29-song stand amounted to a one-man Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, drawing upon material as far back as pre-dating 1977's My Aim Is True and as freshly composed as last week, it was hardly a docent's tour. Rather than fall back on the usual and-then-I-wrote-"Less Than Zero" formula for such occasions — and frankly, we'd settle for that, too — he turned the night into a musical reclamation project, eschewing obvious hits for less-familiar stunners culled from across his career.
That meant, as a gangster-hatted Costello took the stage, if you heard a song from the stellar proto-Americana King of America album, you wouldn't get an expected favorite like "Brilliant Mistake" or "American Without Tears." Instead, he set the tone for the night with the lesser-known but riveting "Jack of All Parades," brandishing its chorus "To be the love of one true heart / Or the jack of all parades" like a statement of long-tail career purpose. Similarly, when he followed with a selection from 1979's beloved Get Happy, he didn't reach for "I Can't Stand up for Falling Down," "Temptation" or other concert staples: He dusted off one of that joyously overstuffed record's finest deep cuts, the Motown rave-up "King Horse," evoking the Attractions' busy arrangement with a fanfare of percussive strumming.
The effect was that when he indeed played the hits — a "Veronica" that remained urgent even with the singer cannily protecting his upper register, a "Watch Your Step" dripping with held-back menace — they sounded excitingly unfamiliar and new in context. Conversely, newer songs such as "Come the Meantime" (from last year's Wise up Ghost collaboration with The Roots), "Church Underground" (from the Nashville-recorded National Ransom) and "Ascension Day" (from the Allen Toussaint project The River in Reverse) took on a drama that sharpened their already barbed hooks. They also stood out in a way that's often difficult among one of Costello's periodic bombardments of 15 songs in a batch — these relatively little-known cuts provoked huge crowd responses.
That was due as much to Costello's force of personality and razor-sharp delivery as the strong material. Admitting that his getup made him look a little like a Boardwalk Empire extra, he asserted that the night's theme would not be "love and deceit," as planned, but rather "life in exile." In a jovial mood, more relaxed and conversational than in his hosting duties on the Spectacle interview show, he charted his path from big-band singer's son to relatively recent father of twin sons. Perhaps the funniest line of the night was his fondly exasperated aside about his kids' immersion in The LEGO Movie. ("I can tell you one thing, though: Everything's fucking awesome.")
Yet he came across not so much as the "man out of time" from one of his best songs but a man willing to stake his work against any test time cares to administer. That was clear from the juxtaposition of two fine songs from his pre-stardom Honky Tonk Demos days — the early "Lip Service" warm-up "Cheap Reward" and the elegantly bilious ballad "Poison Moon" — with a live performance of the tune he unveiled recently subbing for Lana del Ray on David Letterman. Titled "The Last Year of My Youth" and pointedly written as Costello's 60th birthday nears, it's an urbane, curdled ballad made all the more edgily wistful by the singer's jabbing electric accompaniment. Hearing Costello's oldest and newest work that close together was like skipping from the first volume of Edward St. Aubyn's Patrick Melrose novels to the last — the gathering of bitter experience may be evident, but the lacerating wit and unsparing eye were there all along.
Miraculously, the show only got better from there. Adjusting his hat to a rakish angle, Costello settled into a chair as his own special guest at center stage, then reminisced about the follies and failures of his early gigs before launching into the late-’70s B-side "Ghost Train." (For those keeping track of such things: That's two songs from the odds-and-sods collection Taking Liberties, zero off This Year's Model.) The set proper closed with a pindrop-hushed "Alison" and a piercing reading of the late Jesse Winchester's "Quiet About It," before Costello emerged for the first encore with Megan and Rebecca Lovell from opening act Larkin Poe. As openers, the Atlanta-based sisters delivered a promising set of swampy Southern Gothic folk highlighted by sinuous rhythms, Megan's razorwire leads on resonator guitar, and their otherworldly harmonies.
With Costello, however, the siblings coalesced into a unit that occasionally sounded something like a front-porch string band offset by celestial Beach Boys vocals and stinging David Lindley-esque slide work. That was as gorgeous as it sounds on covers of The Byrds' "Goin' Back" (sung in honor of its recently deceased co-writer, the great Gerry Goffin), Richard Thompson's "Withered and Died" and Little Feat's "Long Distance Love"; it was prettier still on Costello's own "Love Field" (an ambient beaut rescued from the messy Goodbye Cruel World LP) and "Hoover Factory," as arrestingly spacy and weird as ever.
The resulting ovation brought Costello back for one more encore: at the keyboard for "Shipbuilding," as dreamily devastating an indictment of war as economic recovery as it was in the days of the Falkland Islands, then finally closing with "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace Love and Understanding." His fervently unironic reading of Nick Lowe's parodic plunge into hippie-dippie earnestness remains as affecting as ever, but the concert hit its emotional peak just moments before, after an engrossing long monologue about the economic woes that put Costello's grandfather out of work as talkies came into fashion. That led into a spellbinding reading of one of his best songs of recent years, the Thompson-like "Jimmie Standing in the Rain," a snapshot of hard times that's almost cinematic in its imagery of desolation. At the song's climax, the singer stepped away from the mic, swaggered to the apron with his guitar silent, and began to sing the old Depression-era plaint "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" Hitting the last high note like an air-raid siren, he lifted an accusatory finger to the crowd and let the question reverberate as the room erupted. Even solo, Elvis Costello is a force of 10.