As I was waiting to see Elvis Costello the other night at the Greek Theater, I was trying to recall the other times that I have seen. The memory that overwhelmed the others was the first time, which I realized (for better or for worse) was 30 years ago. It was a show at the Cleveland Agora, just after his infamous blowup with Bonnie Bramlett in Columbus, Ohio in which he drunkenly badmouthed Ray Charles. That show was a blast of the angry, young Elvis that ended with the blare of ear-splitting white noise to clear the club. It was quite different Costello who took the Greek stage. He was more relaxed and friendlier - and also backed by an all-star bluegrass outfit instead of the Attractions or another rock-based backing group.
While I don’t yet have his new disc Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, I have been a fan of his initial country outing, the influential-in-its-own-way, Almost Blue, and was curious about how the latest musical guise of the chameleon-like Costello would be.
I enjoyed the show immensely, although I could see how fans wanting to hear that favorite old Elvis faithfully performed might be disappointed. There was no “pumping it up” at this concert. No Steve Nieve keyboard work. No Pete Thomas drums – no drums at all. In fact, little in the way of electric instruments. The Sugarcane band, however, provided him with a rich swatch of acoustic textures, with fiddler Stuart Duncan and dobro ace Jerry Douglas particularly standing out.
It was the set list that made this show is truly special evening. While there were expected selections from his newer, Americana based discs as well as a classic Almost Blue gem “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down,” he also reinvented several his older, well-known tunes plus delved into a number of eclectic covers. Longtime fans could feel at home with his twangier interpretations of his old standards like “Blame It On Cain,” “Everyday I Write The Book” and a somewhat Mariachi-flavored take on “Red Shoes.” And I’m sure the faithful left happy that he closed the set with “Allison.” The dapperly dressed Costello also scattered some choice covers throughout the set, from the Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale” to the Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil.” He did two tunes with opening act Lucinda Williams – one was the humorous Williams song “Jailhouse Tears” and the other an exuberant version of the Stones’ ‘Happy.”
Costello’s Sugarcane crop proved to be one of his more successful musical harvest, at least to this longtime Costello and Americana fan.