Elvis Costello at the Warfield (4/15/12)

For some reason I went to this show with a dual consciousness: as long-time rabid fan, but  also trying to channel the experience of a newbie. As I’ll explain, the first consciousness enjoyed itself;  the second, not so much.

By rabid fan, I mean the usual embarrassing kind of thing – me, with most of the huge catalog of songs sunk into my brain, humming many of them at idle moments, introducing EC into conversation completely inappropriately the way geeks of a certain age begin to recite Monty Python skits. A non-fan friend once asked me to compile a best-of to see if she could like him to (or at least being asked is the way I remember it). I came back with 3 discs, 50 songs, and a crazy glint in my eye. Just the absolute essentials, you see.  (In my defense, this is probably just 10% or so of his output.)

But getting to like an Elvis Costello song or album has always been a slow, odd  process, even for a fan like me. For a long time whenever a new album would come out I would immediately get it and then pronounce it a disappointment. It would seem bland, overly complicated, featureless, whiny, not up to his previous standard. Only at about the tenth hearing would some of the complicated melodies begin to latch on to parts of my brain like lampreys, and things would only get worse from there.  EC’s songwriting is intensely melodic, but almost never catchy, in the sense of likability on first hearing (other than about five hits that charted). And if a crazy EC fan doesn’t like his songs on first hearing, why should anyone else?

Then there’s the voice. I think it’s great – both the grainy expressiveness, and the funny quality where the start of every vocal note somewhat unpredictably “catches” (or doesn’t) like an automobile engine that might or might not want to turn over.  For some people, though, it’s just husky and rough and “bad”.

But on to the concert itself: my friend Jeff and I show up, get drinks, survey the crowd.  Everyone is middle-aged, of course, and I am amused to see the remaining indicators of the 80’s-era hipsters they once were:  the vestigial earrings (radical in their day), the porkpie hats. But as we sit down, Jeff accidentally brushes the legs of the guy behind us with his coat, which throws the guy into a rage.  It’s hard to correlate his mid-50s middle-class bespectacled appearance with his rant:  “Sorry guy, now you fucked up. Just fucking turn around and stop talking, now”.  As he stomps off triumphantly to find Security to have us thrown out for the offense (having narrowly decided not to just beat us to death), Jeff tries to reason with the wife, who hews to the capital-punishment party line. Security is unmoved, however, and we are allowed to stay.  Can I recommend a listen to “I’m Not Angry”? (Not to be a city-snob, but sometimes I wonder if some folks who come from the suburbs to concerts in the city simply cannot deal with the sudden increase in population density, and freak out for that reason alone.)

Finally, a welcome distraction: the show. For this tour, Elvis has revived the spinning wheel (along with of course the dancer’s cage and the Society Lounge)!  On stage there’s a huge Wheel-of-Fortune style wheel with 50 or so songs on it that selected audience members are invited to spin – whatever comes up is what the band will play right now.  It’s both a display of performance bravado (“we’ve got at least 50 songs that we’ll play at the drop of a hat”) and a fun randomizer. Beyond Belief got picked (making Jeff happy) and when it landed on Episode of Blonde (that weird meld of spoken-rant verse and intensely-sweet hook-chorus), and then he came up to our balcony to sing it, well yeah, I got my fan’s money’s worth for sure.

As I said at the top, though, I couldn’t just enjoy myself as a fan, and kept slipping into seeing the show as I thought a non-fan might see it, and saw any number of barriers:

  • Complexity, non-catchiness – if you’re not going to be immediately captivated on hearing a recording, will a live show be different?
  • The voice – if it’s rough when captured exactly as desired by recording engineers, how will it seem in concert? And Elvis is sometimes an exquisitely precise singer, but under pressure of live performance, well, yes – he will rush up to the mike a little bit late, and maybe kinda bellow into it, and what are new arrivals to make of that?
  • Finally, it has to be said: acoustics of live shows mostly just suck – boomy, muddy, indistinct. I wondered at this show whether touring shows like this should redistribute effort a little bit – take 3% of the budget currently spent on talent, stage props, logistics and devote it to someone sitting at random points in the venues figuring out whether the lead singer can in fact be heard with clarity.

I am convinced that there is a funny dynamic with fans of studio-intensive music played in concert, that shows up at least as much with hip-hop acts as with aging post-punk singer-songwriters: you hear a faint allusion to a studio-produced track you love, and you are all woo-hoo and oh-yeah, because you love the studio track and here you are hearing it *live* so that must be even better and so you lungfully represent your love for that studio track, and are very happy. But (especially with acts that really exploit the studio in a good way) how often is this just a reminder of the track you love and not an improvement on it?  Would a new listener have anything like that reaction?

So if you have never heard EC before, can I recommend his live show?  Nope – it’s likely to be about a first hearing of a really complicated song (that you might like on the tenth hearing) that is more comprehensible on record than in concert, and that is obscured by vocal oddities and acoustic problems and will be just hard to figure out, leaving as possible appeals just the sonic fun of the concert and the sort of partially-likable ironic-vaudeville showmanship that EC enjoys.

If you’re a fan, though, I recommend this incarnation of the EC tour really strongly – spin that wheel and you’re likely to  be happy, especially if you already know the song that comes up on top.

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