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Elvis Costello @ Amoeba Music 6/22/09

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It’s not exactly shocking to hear that Elvis Costello’s latest album, Secret, Profane and Sugarcane, is a collaboration with bluegrass musicians. Costello’s taken so many leaps into alternate musical universes, it wouldn’t be shocking to hear he was working with anybody. Li’l Wayne, Herb Alpert, Placido Domingo, Michael Jackson, Ornette Coleman, the Broadway company of Rent - you name it, you can imagine it happening. But this particular diversion, as witnessed at Amoeba on Monday night, looks like one that could leave a lasting impression.

Costello shared the stage with guitarist and singer Jim Lauderdale and mandolin player Mike Compton, esteemed performers in their own right, performing the bulk of the new album along with a couple of brand new songs (which appeared to be titled “Condemned Man” and “Five Small Words”), along with “Blame It On Cain”, the only concession to his own back catalog, and a cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil” in a 52-minute set.

No matter who’s up there with him, or which old songs he’s pulled out of the hat this time around, the key to a Costello show is the quality of the new material he’s showing off for he first time. Thankfully, Sugarcane is a better than average set of songs that seem to have been written for a rock band before being adapted to this back-porch instrumentation. Except for a couple of ballads, this is no kick-back country session, it’s a full frontal Costello assault that just happens to be turned down some.

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Though his most enduring band, the Attractions/ Imposters, was nowhere to be found, you could hear traces of Steve Nieve’s Vox organ in Compton’s mandolin, filling in the spaces between Costello’s vocal lines in a way that resembled an organ much more than a guitar. Lauderdale played the unassuming role of bass player, while adding pitch-perfect vocal harmonies. Costello bashed out a percussive rhythm on his own guitar, and spat out the lyrics with venom.

Despite a busy afternoon, performing at the San Francisco Amoeba before flying down to this show, Costello was in great voice and high spirits. After performing the title track from Sugarcane, which rhymes the words “panties” and “Ypsilanti”, he held up a gift that had been offered to him in San Francisco: a pair of authentic Ypsilanti Panties, bearing the slogan “Never a rip and tear a tear with Ypsilanti Underwear!”

Life is sometimes mysterious. But Costello fans have seen stranger things, and that applies to the music as well. Once you get used to the sound of the band, the songs are actually fairly close in spirit to the Elvis of Armed Forces and Get Happy!, only the instruments have changed. And with players like this, a drummer-less lineup still swings, and still has the capacity to rock, which they did, particularly on the closing “Five Small Words”, which incorporated a bit of “Not Fade Away” at the end, the Amoeba crowd stamping out a relentless beat on the CD racks.

Thirty-some years into one of the most prolific careers in rock, Costello still has juice to spare. He hits the Greek with an expanded (though apparently still drummer-less) group focusing on this material, on August 18, and I’d highly recommend checking it out. Despite the homespun instrumentation, this set was one for the rockers. At least, the rockers who don’t need to have their music smash them in the face, but can lean in and listen attentively when the moment calls for it.

Photo by Carl Johnson, used by permission.