May 17, 2007

Still Rocking

Last night at the Nokia Theatre, Elvis Costello blazed through a two-hour set with nary a break and zero between-song patter. He opened with "Welcome to the Working Week" and closed with "Peace, Love and Understanding." Cynically, you could say he's pushing his latest reissue set, or trying to make up for the impression that he's another middle-aged rock sellout with sheer brute force.

Less cynically, there's no denying he's got a peerless song catalogue into which he can dip at will and find fresh inflections and resonance, and that he can still convincingly summon the venom and fury of his less-genteel material. I was particularly struck by his renditions of "Riot Act" and "Let Him Dangle," two songs I'd never cared much for, as well as his passionate reading of "Kid About It" and his churning take on "Strict Time," two songs I've always admired.

Bottom line, if he wanted to prove that he can still rock like he did 30 years ago, mission accomplished. I've loved some of his guitar-only sets and his more classical-ish outings (including an odd gig at UCLA with the Mingus Orchestra), but this was more relentlessly ass-kicking, less gladhanding and singer/songwritely-sensitive, than anything I've ever seen him do.

Apropos the recent critical kerfluffle regarding religion and stuff, I thought of two EC songs. From 1982's Imperial Bedroom, the searing opener, which he rendered a little stiffly last night:
I've got a feeling
I'm gonna get a lot of grief
Once this seemed so appealing
Now I am beyond belief

The lament of a former believer? I'm not sure the song is about religious faith per se, but then it's about a lot of things, as are most of his best songs, and in any case it's a succinct summary of disillusionment. Then, from 1991's Mighty Like a Rose, the Weill-ish waltz "Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4," which I saw him sings sans microphone with the Brooklyn Phil last year, does seem to be about religious faith, and it's worth quoting in full:
I saw a girl who'd found her consolation
She said "One day my Prince of Peace will come"
Above her head a portrait of her father
The wilted favour that he gave her still fastened to the frame
"They've got his bones and everything he owns
I've got his name"

Well you can laugh at this sentimental story
But in time you'll have to make amends
The sudden chill where lovers doubt their immortality
As the clouds cover the sky the evening ends
Describing a picture of eyes finally closing
As you sometimes glimpse terrible faces in the fire
We'll I'm the lucky goon
Who composed this tune
from birds arranged on the high wire

Who on earth is tapping at the window?
Does that face still linger at the pane?
I saw you shiver though the room was like a furnace
A shadow of regret across a young mother's face
So toll the bell or rock the cradle
Please don't let me fear anything I cannot explain
I can't believe I'll never believe in anything again

As a struggling believer who has often felt "between gigs," spiritually speaking, that last line moves me like nobody's business.

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