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Arts and Entertainment

Elvis Costello @ Greek Theater 8/18/09

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Photo by Elise Thompson for LAist

Elvis Costello’s not shy when it comes to genre-hopping. Folks who are only interested his “straight” rock and roll incarnation as leader of the Attractions/ Imposters (same difference give or take a bass player) need to do a little research before shelling out for tickets, to make sure they don’t end up on the wrong end of a jazz orchestra or an acapella choir. Those people may have opted out of this most recent trip fronting the Sugarcanes, a crew of traditional bluegrass musicians, each one a celebrated player in his own right. But the loss is their own. While the drumset-free, accordion-rich stage setup might have looked a little odd, there was no mistaking who the dude at the mic was.

For a casual fan the night might have seemed a little lean on greatest hits, with only “Alison”, “The Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes” and “Every Day I Write The Book” making the grade. But in between, we were treated to a thrilling set of new songs, cover tunes and overlooked obscurities from the past, delivered with a poignancy and grace that’s sometimes missed at his more standard gigs. Minus the drums and organ that power the Attractions’ engine, but bolstered by a polyphonic chorus of dobro, mandolin, banjo, fiddle, upright bass and accordion, it was like watching through a favorite movie through a filter, in which certain colors are eliminated while new, unfamiliar ones are introduced.

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An early high point came when the band broke out their new treatment of “The Delivery Man”, murky, ominous and impressively dramatic. This was followed by the night’s most intense performance, a furious, boiling rendition of the suicide ballad “The Butcher’s Boy”, with a harrowing violin solo by Stuart Duncan. The Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale” was re-imagined as a lilting country waltz, while the Dead’s “Friend Of The Devil” and Merle Haggard’s “Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down” were played straight. As he shared the mic with Lucinda Williams for a spirited run through the Keith Richards gem “Happy,” I had to wonder… if we’d been told back in 1978 that we would someday come to an Elvis Costello concert and hear Merle Haggard, the Stones and the Goddamn Grateful Dead, would we have even believed it?

Well… maybe. Costello was never much of a “rip it up and start again” sort of guy; he was doing piano jazz and going on about George Jones at the same time contemporaries like PiL and the Pop Group were making music that denied any knowledge of the past, or any respect for it. Like Ray Davies, Costello sees the benefit in preserving the old ways while protecting the new. We might not have predicted the Brodsky Quartet, to say nothing of Jerry Garcia covers, but we wouldn’t have expected him to keep making This Year’s Model over and over again either.

But the journey through the past wasn’t the whole story. The majority of the music played consisted of brand-new compositions, some even newer than the album he’s touring behind, Secret, Profane and Sugarcane. What’s most striking about the new material is how well it stands up to everything else in the set. Secret…; probably would have made a fine “return to form” album if the Imposters had taken a crack at these songs, but also might have seemed too contrived, too obvious an effort to recapture former glories. With the shift in instrumentation, he can play to his songwriting strengths without sounding like he’s repeating himself.

The stellar cast of supporting players - Duncan, dobro player Jerry Douglas, mandolin player Mike Compton, accordionist Jeff Taylor, guitarist and harmony singer Jim Lauderdale, and bass player Dennis Crouch - was joined by their producer, T. Bone Burnett, during the encore for “The Scarlet Tide.” Word was, they were headed for the recording studio as soon as the show was finished. While most of Costello’s various costume changes have been one-time events, this particular one looks fruitful enough to keep pursuing. Here’s to ‘em.

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