Elvis Costello & Lucinda Williams

August 18, 2009
Greek Theatre
Los Angeles, CA

Review by Shawn Perry

You really have to respect a musician like Elvis Costello. Here’s a guy who’s been on the public radar screen for over 30 years, and it’s almost as if he’s just getting started. Sure, he could carry on making hits, while sitting back with his hot musician wife Diana Krall and counting his millions. Apparently, that’s not his style. The man, who, on the suggestion of his manager, deliberately stole the first name of the king of rock and roll, takes chances and experiments…ranging from classical to country to ballet to Tin Pan Alley.

Costello’s yen for country, which has come and gone over the years, has transformed the musician into a more rounded and revered troubadour, very much on the same page as Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Gram Parsons. Like Dylan and Young, Costello’s back log of songs gives him license to fool with the form as he pays tribute to the classics. Doing this provides a new challenge, a new outlet, for the singer — something he obviously needs to stay active.

This year, his fruitful dalliances have taken him all over the world, playing shows with the The Brodsky Quartet in April; Allen Toussaint, Burt Bacharach, and Spinal Tap on stage at various New York venues in May, and then the old switcheroo between of Imposters and his latest creation, the Sugarcanes. One has to wonder how he keeps the flow running smoothly without losing his head. That cool Costello demeanor — not the angry young man who bad-mouthed Ray Charles to Bonnie Bramlett in the late 70s — was on display and running amok at the Greek Theatre.

Tonight was a show you wanted to get to on time. That’s because it wasn’t just about Elvis Costello. Lucinda Williams, deemed “America’s best songwriter” by Costello, got the night started with a sturdy and efficient 50-minute set. Williams inimitable rough and ragged voice cut through the murk and mire of the unadorned stage.

Backed by three-quarters of Buick 6 — guitarist Chet Lyster, bassist David Sutton and former Eel drummer Butch Norton — Williams mixed a mostly acoustic set of new songs like “Well, Well, Well” from her latest album Little Honey with favorites like “Blue” from 2001’s Essence and “Joy” from 1998’s Car Wheels On A Gravel Road. The band was tight and Williams did strap on an electric guitar at various moments, but it was disappointing to not hear her rock out a little more, given the fact that upbeat songs like “Real Love,” “Honey Bee” and a cover of AC/DC’s “It’s A Long Way To The Top” are what make Little Honey so exciting. She would make amends during Costello’s set.

Indeed, just before 9:00 with the stage virtually unaltered from when Williams and her band played, Elvis Costello walked out to a standing ovation. The six-piece Sugarcanes — Dennis Crouch (bass), Stuart Duncan (fiddle and banjo), Jerry Douglas (dobro), Jeff Taylor (accordion), Mike Compton (mandolin) and Jim Lauderdale (harmony and background vocals) — surrounded the maestro who immediately fell into a rousing version of the classic “Mystery Train.” It was anyone’s guess as to which way we were headed. Was Costello going to make it an all-night hootenanny? Was he going to play hits? Was his usual drummer Bruce Thomas going to show up and kick it into overdrive? A total mystery train.

Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, Costello’s latest opus produced by longtime ally and recent Grammy winner T Bone Burnett, was the driving force behind the tour, so there was great expectation to hear it live. Of the album’s 13 tracks, Costello went with eight — the wistful “My All Time Doll,” “Down Among The Wines And Spirits,” “Hidden Shame,” “She Was No Good,” “Red Cotton” “The Crooked Line,” “Sulphur To Sugarcane” and “Complicated Shadows.” He also pulled out “Femme Fatale,” not on the CD mind you, but available as an iTune bonus track. Which meant much of the rest of the night was shrouded in...well...you know.

But once you resign yourself to the fact that Costello is staying within the format, those hidden gems start to surface. The reading of “The Bottle Let Me Down,” from 1981’s Almost Blue, Costello’s first foray into country, was filled with heart and inspiration. “The Butcher Boy,” a more traditional hymn, felt almost Celtic in its execution. That’s what happens when you put an Englishman in charge.

Of course, no one owned like Lucinda Williams, who returned to the stage to duet with Costello. Their match-up on “Jailhouse Tears,” reprised from Little Honey, had the house in stitches. “I used to be a user/But now I'm all out of stuff,” Costello whined. “You're a three-time loser/You're all fucked up,” Williams fired back. Then they swung into the Stones’ “Happy” and the place erupted.

Near the end of the performance, Costello got even crazier with the songs — playing an unreleased track called “Condemned Man” before diving into a knee-slapping rendition of the Grateful Dead’s “Friend Of The Devil.” After that, it was a matter of hits and highlights. “Everyday I Write The Book” buoyed the enthusiasm and “Brilliant Mistake” was the cherry on top. The eight-song encore put the show on its ear.

When you gather musicians of this caliber, especially someone as celebrated and prolific as Jerry Douglas, you have to push the envelope out further with each successive note. That Costello did in no small measure. After a couple more new ones, “The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes,” one of the singer ’s earliest hits, came along and clobbered the audience into sobriety.

On their feet and dancing as best as they could, the audience was now in Costello's clutches. And he wasn’t through just yet. He brought out T Bone Burnett, a gifted guitarist as well as a world-class producer, to lift the curtain on the new album’s hit “Complicated Shadows.” This was swiftly followed by “The Scarlet Tide,” a track co-written by Costello and Burnett and featured in the film Cold Mountain. But once “Alison,” another early favorite, was trotted out as the final number of the night, it became increasingly clear that Elvis Costello can interpret his songs in any form or fashion he wants, and his fans are still going to love him and them. That’s a goal all singer-songwriters aspire to, but rarely achieve. He's one of the lucky ones.

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