Elvis Costello's "Live at Liverpool Philharmonic" DVD
When he first hit back in '77, I wrongly lumped Elvis Costello in with the battalion of Van Morrison simulacra that were burning up the airwaves at the time, including Springsteen in his reciting-the-Manhattan-phone-directory phase, Brooce's Jersey homeboy Southside Johnny, Graham Parker, Thin Lizzy's Phil Lynott, Mellencamp in his "Johnny Cougar" phase, and so on. Once he'd dismissed Clover, the Meercun hipi band that backed him on My Aim Is True (kind of like Garland Jeffreys' Grinder's Switch backing John Cale on Vintage Violence) and formed the Attractions, a sort-of pub rock Sir Douglas Quintet that depended as much on Steve Nieve's Farfisa as it did on Elvis' snarl for its impact, he seemed to me a prime example (Talking Heads were another) of Music That People Who Work In Record Stores Like. (The man who brought me here sure did.)
He sang "I'm Not Angry," but I thought he protested too much. When he played the SUNY Albany dorms where I used to live, after I dropped out, it was reported to me that five minutes before curtain, he was rolling around on the floor with the head of the concert committee, fighting about money. In his cups, trying to get a rise out of a couple of complacent Meercun musos, he spat out a racist slur about Ray Charles that it took him years to live down. In the '80s, Maggie Thatcher finally gave him a target worthy of all his vituperation and spleen. Punch the Clock, released in 1983, included a song about the Falklands War ("Shipbuilding," covered by Robert Wyatt) and another about Tory austerity ("Pills and Soap"). On 1989's Spike, "Tramp the Dirt Down" is a richly deserved blast of bile directed at the Iron Lady. And this bit from "All This Useless Beauty" (1996) continues to resonate: "And our leaders have feasts on the backsides of beasts / They still think they're the gods of antiquity..."
In the fullness of time, Costello proved to be something entahrly other than the "new wave" flash in the pan he originally appeared to be: a pop songsmith in the manner of Cole Porter, or Paul McCartney (with whom he's collaborated to good effect). His dabblings in different genres -- reggae, R&B, country, even classical, for chrissakes -- just showed how enamored he was of The Song in all its permutations. He collaborated with Burt Bacharach on 1998's Painted from Memory, and even I had to admire the elegance of a line like "Does the extinguished candle care about the darkness?" (from that album's "This House Is Empty Now," inspired by Costello's divorce from Pogues bassist Cait O'Riordan). He made three good albums with roots Americana producer and Fort Worth expat T-Bone Burnett, another with NOLA R&B stalwart Allen Toussaint in the wake of Katrina, and yet another with hip-hop band turned TV house band the Roots. (There's a vid on Youtube of Costello and the Roots playing his creepy desire-as-menace song "I Want You," which originally closed the first side of 1986's Blood and Chocolate, that's pure fire.)
He's also living proof of Nick Hornby's assertion that the main difference between Brit and Meercun rockers is that the Brits seem to like their parents more. Indeed, Costello's music is as full of Tin Pan Alley and British music hall as the Beatles' and Kinks' are, for good reason -- his father and grandfather were both performers. He gives them (and his mum, in the house the night Detour Live at Liverpool was taped) props in the course of his performance, which is solo acoustic and somewhat reminiscent of Neil Young's Massey Hall tour de force documented in Journeys. The stage is set with a piano, an array of guitars, small amps, a megaphone (that he actually uses at one point!) and a big fake TV set that's used for video projections and later, a couple of performances.
On the DVD, Costello sings his way through songs from his whole career, and talks story with an affability that belies his rep. Sometimes the guitar-only backing makes you wonder what song's coming, and he changes the rhythmic thrust of a few, but never in a Dylan "What-song-am-I-singing-now?" way. His singing has actually improved with age, gaining nuance and shading without losing any range or power; perhaps being married to Diana Krall has helped? On a few songs, he gets help from two mandolin-and-lap-steel-playing sisters from Atlanta who go by Larkin Poe professionally, a reminder of the days when he used to mentor like-minded newcomers like the Specials and Squeeze. A few songs that slipped by me when they were new made a strong impression ("When I Was Cruel No. 2" and "Jimmie Standing In the Rain"), and only once does he nearly trainwreck (doing the playing-along-with-looper bit on "Watching the Detectives"). Good value, and has me revisiting the catalog.