As I’ve gotten older, I’ve usually found I actually have less in common musically with people my age. For the most part, as people age, their taste in music narrows, and in many ways just freezes completely, stuck in whatever period they can nostalgically hold on to as being better than “kids today.” That’s not to say I don’t like old and straight up retro music, because I obviously do, but I don’t just like that, and I don’t dismiss anything new outright.
Still, for years I’ve heard my contemporaries talk about seeing people like Paul McCartney live and how he shames young musicians by playing marathon length shows and demonstrating a complete mastery of his art. I’ve never had the chance to see McCartney live, but I’ve had a small taste of that seeing Dylan a couple of times. But that was just a small taste. Last night, I really came to understand what total mastery of the artform is when I saw Elvis Costello play, mostly by himself, for approximately two and a half hours at Ft. Lauderdale’s Broward Center for the Performing Arts.
Before I get to Costello, though, we have to talk about Larkin Poe. I’d seen them on the YouTube series Jam in the Van not too long ago and liked what I heard, so I was familiar with them already. Last night, however, it was just the two Lovell sisters, minus bass and drums, which is fine because these two sisters from Atlanta know their shit. Roots music, whether blues, gospel, country, bluegrass, folk, or whatever depends on a certain authenticity to be sure, but it also depends on a knowledge of its history that I don’t think more modern genres necessarily do. That knowledge has to be organic in order to really come across. I know nothing of their upbringing, but judging from their performance last night, I would not be surprised if they learned to play mandolin and lap steel on a wooden porch by watching their elders. There’s just something loose and natural about their style which came accross from the first song they played, “Wade in the Water” and in every original song they played as well, including a stripped down and more gothic version of “Jailbreak” off their first full length album, Kin.
Of course, as much as I was already loving Larkin Poe, they took me over the top with the last song of their opening set. “You’ll have to decide if this is a Cher song or a Nancy Sinatra song,” announced Rebecca Lovell, eliciting an immediate “Oh shit” of excited recognition from me that I’m sure everyone around me must have noticed as I stumbled for my cell phone. What followed was a completely fresh take on one of my favorite songs of all time, the often covered “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down).”
During the intermission, I met the ladies at the merch table where they signed their album for me and I mentioned that to me it was a Nancy song because her version was better than Cher’s original, but I should have added that the version I’d just heard was up there with Nancy’s because they brought something completely new to the table by making this story of a love gone as bad as possible into a true southern gothic tale and really all their own while not losing the original’s vision. There’s just a certain fire that they brought to out that came through with the lap steel.
Before the show and during intermission, on the stage was a giant TV playing Elvis Costello videos. So when Elvis just matter of factly walked on stage with little warning, he approached the mic and said “well, you’ve heard all the hits, so I guess you can just go home now” and then unceremoniously started playing “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes.” Right off what stood out in this solo performance was that there was no pretension about it. He was just going to play and that’s that. Also, he was going to be heard, and everyone there understood that.
I’ve always liked Elvis in a more distant way. I’ve never really dug deep into his catalog because, as he pointed out at one point last night, at this point there are over 500 songs. That’s intimidating to get into if you’re exploring. The good news is, as of last night, it’s clear to me that his mastery of the craft goes well beyond the songs I was already familiar with. I finally really understand what the big deal is.
How often have you been to a show where a performer tries to do something a little quieter than normal only to be drowned out by talking or inappropriate cheering (or worse, heckling) followed by angry shushing from the rest of the crowd? Sometimes the performer will practically have to plead with people to just shut up for one damn second because this could be special damn it!
I experienced the complete opposite of this several times during this show. The first one hit me in the face with it’s power. At the end of “Accidents Will Happen” he stepped back from the mic, played more quietly on the acoustic guitar and sang with no amplification for a few verses. And you could hear every bit of it. There was never a moment of transition to being quiet. It just happened and everyone just understood because he wasn’t asking. He was just doing it and he is Elvis so you’re going to listen, is the feeling I got. There was something very powerful about the way this happened and it happened several more times throughout the night.
For most of the show, Elvis Costello played one guitar or another, acoustic or electric and I was wowed by how underrated he is as a guitar player. He’s not just playing chords for the sake of rhythm, it’s much more complex than that. But his first journey over to the piano resulted in the most clear indication of two other things about Elvis: his songwriting and the overwhelming beauty of his voice. He really is a complete songwriter in the sense that every note, every pause, every flourish is there to support a lyric or an idea.
This is when he played “Shipbuilding,” a song I was familiar with, but never loved or even liked that much, to be honest. But, hearing it this way, just piano and vocals, stripped down, highlighted the complexity and emotion of the song and the performance showcased the power, range, control and genuine feeling that Elvis radiates with every note he sings. His vibrato particularly is amazing to hear live. He’s been accused of oversinging and I’m sure that’s true in a lot of his recorded work, but last night, there was nothing over about it. It was right on and I’m still impressed.
So, there were three encores. The first one was with Larkin Poe and felt like a good ole fashioned hootenanny with the lap steel, mandolin and harmonies. This set ended with the mandatory and uplifting “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” a song he didn’t write but did make famous. Like most people I was sure this was it, but suddenly, Elvis just appeared inside that giant TV and started playing again. At several points throughout the night people yelled out requests. I kept hearing calls for “I Want You,” which I would have loved to hear in a stripped down version like this, but that wasn’t to be.
The other most requested song was “Allison” and this is when it came. What hit me at this point, is that as much I had wanted to to hear this song, and as great as the song is, I can understand why he might have skipped it and it would have been ok. There just wasn’t much more to do with the song in the way that he did with some of the others he played earlier in the night. It was a good performance and I’m glad he played it, but I understand now why the first time someone had yelled it out the response was a sarcastic “I love a man with an imagination.”
The second encore ended with a song that I think perfectly distills everything that happened that night, “Radio Soul,” which is an early version of his hit “Radio, Radio.” In this early version, it’s a love song to radio, but it can more broadly be said to be about music and the lines “but everybody else is overwhelmed by indifference and the promise of an early bed but for myself I don’t work too much least not since I’ve been told I could sail away to the songs that play upon that radio soul,” could have closed the night. But, of course, they didn’t. There was one more encore, which started with Elvis on piano doing a somewhat creepy take on the standard “Side by Side,” before he called Larkin Poe back out for two more songs.
All around me everyone was impressed with how much music we had just heard. All told, Elvis played 32 songs for about 2 and a half hours. It’s the longest I’ve ever seen anyone play. The theater had senior citizens who volunteer as ushers and as I was walking out I overheard one of them saying to another “I kept thinking it was over but every time he just picked up that god damned guitar again.” So, in summary, at 61 years old, playing mostly acoustic songs by himself on stage, many of them ballads, some country and at least one standard, Elvis Costello is still pissing off old people. Punk’s not dead.