Elvis Costello: Live Last Night

elvis costello(Photo by Andi King)

Live Last Night

No matter how many Will Ferrell flicks or Stephen Colbert Christmas specials Elvis Costello turns up in, the circa 1978 image of him as the logorheic and self-immolating Angry Young Man endures.

But in the latter two-thirds of his wildly eclectic career, he's evolved into something more like the Martin Scorcese of music, as much a historian and curator as he is an original artist. Some would extend the Scorcese comparison to say that critics overpraise Elvis's latter-day stuff out of affection for the more direct (and popular) work he did in the '70s and '80s. (And those people are wrong.) But nobody could deny his generosity as a live performer.

Last night, as in several summers past, Costello indulged that curatorial impulse in an ingratiating and wide-ranging set at Wolf Trap. And as in the past, he brought along some very estimable backup. The retinue of roots-music ringers onstage included harmony singer/guitarist Jim Lauderdale, fiddler Stuart Duncan and dobro player Jerry Douglas. It's the same crew that plays on "Secret, Profane & Sugarcane," a disarmingly ramshackle slice of Americana that finds Elvis at his headiest and goosiest all at once.

(Read the rest of the review after the jump.)

Given that there were more chops onstage than in Jackie Chan's entire filmography, the show was surprisingly light on solos. Though the players had the dexterity and chemistry you'd expect, as a band they sometimes seemed too timid, as though determined not to upstage the songs.

They needn't have worried. These songs -- 31 of them -- hold their own. The 155-minute set included most of the new disc, naturally. But as usual with this Elvis, it was the game of which cover versions he'd attempt -- not to mention which oldies and oddities he'd resurrect from his own crazy-thick songbook -- that gave the evening a delightful air of surprise.

Case in point: The set included tunes by Hoagy Carmichael and Harold Adamson ("My Resistance Is Low"), Merle Haggard ("Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down") and Lou Reed ("Femme Fatale," in an arrangement decidedly more celebratory than the aching original). And that was just in the first half-dozen songs. Later, there would a be a dusty "Friend of the Devil." And the two songs Elvis wrote for Johnny Cash. And one he wrote with Loretta Lynn: "She came out with a big box labeled 'Songs,' so I knew she meant business," Costello reminisced with his usual dry pith.

Elvis, of course, is a songwriting heavyweight himself, and the vintage material he chose to adapt to the old-timey idiom came largely from his 1977 debut, "My Aim Is True," and from a prior full-on foray into roots, 1986's "King of America." Rarities? Check: "American Without Tears No. 2," which duplicates the original's melody but offers a sequel in the lyrics. Maybe only four people in the house could identify it, but Elvis had persuaded most of the lawn to sing along by the end. After that, getting them to sing "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" was a cinch.

The evening wasn't perfect. It took half the show to get the sound mix right, and with all-acoustic instrumentation, you couldn't not notice. Perhaps because it was his third marathon concert in as many nights, Elvis suffered some weakness in the pipes. Like a true pro, he apologized only once, pleading "New York air." And he rebounded nicely for the hour's worth of encores we've come to expect from him.

-- CHRIS KLIMEK

By J. Freedom du Lac |  June 12, 2009; 11:54 AM ET Live Last Night
Previous: A.A. Bondy: Live Last Night | Next: Bowen McCauley Dance/'Lucy's Playlist': Live Last Night

Comments

Please email us to report offensive comments.



I have seen Elvis many times in several incarnations and I am a long-time and true fan. Last night was disappointing though. Yes, it was a marathon show but that is not always a good thing. There were few highlights, but more importantly there was little or no energy on stage. Any highlights and excitement could have been distilled and packaged in a short 25 minute set. For his second set of encores when I started to hear almost word for word the same rap Elvis gave about his sons when he opened for Dylan at Merriweather in '07 I actually felt bad. It seemed a bit like going through the motions.

Posted by: pauldenver99 | June 12, 2009 12:13 PM

I attend the EC show at Wolf Trap last evening. The sound never got to a point of acceptable. EC's voice was muddy, and the instruments were all mixed together, no definition. Sitting in row U, center I was positioned well but it didn't impress me at all. As for the performance it will probably advance with time. It appeared the musicians were afraid to come into their own and upstage the King. I have seen all of EC's adventures in the past 6-7 years and this one needs some work. Thank you...

Posted by: kenders | June 12, 2009 12:23 PM

I loved Elvis in the 70s and 80s, even when he would storm off the stage after 45-minute concerts (generosity?). But like the aging ball-player, it's time to call it a career. And stop with the weird TV appearances. Please stop.

Posted by: mford00 | June 12, 2009 12:59 PM

Who's the genius who linked the full-size 3MB image at the top of this post?

Posted by: spacecadetkid | June 12, 2009 1:57 PM

I attended the EC show at Wolf Trap last evening. The sound never got to a point of acceptable. EC's voice was muddy, and the instruments were all mixed together, no definition. Sitting in row U, center I was positioned well but it didn't impress me at all. As for the performance it will probably advance with time. It appeared the musicians were afraid to come into their own and upstage the King. I have seen all of EC's adventures in the past 6-7 years and this one needs some work. Thank you...

Posted by: kenders | June 12, 2009 2:09 PM

I love Elvis. He is one of the top few great performers. I would include him to side beside John Hiatt and Tom Waits, and perhaps just behind Ragnar Kvaran and Bob Dylan.
I haven't seen this tour, but his shows are always different from tour to tour.

Posted by: mangograss | June 14, 2009 9:56 AM

I was looking forward to the show on Thursday evening, to see Elvis Costello AND to see the great musicians on the tour backing him up. It was disappointing to see these players on such a tight rein. Many times when the dobro and fiddle were just getting warmed up, the song would wrap on queue from the "star." What a strange juxtaposition to see that Elvis has the talent to bring together this incredible group of musicians and then be too self-conscience (or vain?) to let them shine. As this was my first visit to Wolf Trap I was also surprised that the sound quality was so poor. I had a great seat on row J and realized later that the lawn was getting the better sound balance. Was there no sound check before the show? Stuart Duncan was having technical difficulties through half the show. I'm looking forward to a return to Wolf Trap...so much great music is coming this summer. I hope Elvis will loosen up and let the other musicians on the tour share the spotlight.

Posted by: pixie66 | June 14, 2009 10:42 AM

I completely disagree with the other posters, and agree with the reviewer (although by my listen, he did most of his lyrics from American Without Tears from the version of that song on King of America, which is v.1, not v.2). I thought they got the sound right about 6 or 7 songs in, I thought his vocal flatness at times was a minor problem compared to the vocal prowess that he showed at others, including during the encores, and I absolutely loved the acoustic versions of certain songs. Not without its issues, as any concert is, other than the few perfect ones that happen, but also sweet and tasty and all in all at least an 8.5 out of 10.

Posted by: MTfromCC | June 14, 2009 12:01 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 

© 2010 The Washington Post Company