Indoor Fireworks

Now that the World Cup is winding down (or is it up?) I’ve managed to find some time to devote to my first love, music. In the last week, I’ve seen a couple of my favourite songwriters each put on a fantastic show in two Irish cities. I’ll tell you about the second gig at a later date, but now I’m going to fill you in on one of the best musical events I’ve attended in a while: Elvis Costello at Vicar Street. I’ve been a fan of Mr Costello’s music for more than twenty years, but I’d only ever seen him in concert once before. That was at the Hammersmith Apollo in London in September 2002 on the When I Was Cruel tour. He was backed by The Imposters that day, essentially The Attractions without Pete Thomas and with Davey Faragher as his replacement. My recollections of the finer points of that gig have been lost in the mists of time, but I do recall that Chris Difford gave a good showing as the opening act. Also, Elvis and his band bounded on stage and tore into the opening half dozen songs without a single word of greeting from the main man. I don’t think he was in the best of form that night and he may have had a go at a member of the crowd who interrupted him with a request for a song while he was addressing the audience. I wouldn’t have expected anything less

My second time seeing him last Thursday, however, couldn’t have been more different. Like the first time in London, I had to thank my friend John for dragging me along to the gig. This time, we were also joined by my friend Ann who we met before the show in the vicinity of a large chicken. Ann and I grew up at the butt of the Galtee mountains and we were the only fans in the village who preferred the Costello variety of Elvis. We didn’t have anything against the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll – we just favoured Costello’s verbal dexterity over Presley’s hip-shaking. Anyway, back to 2010 and the ground floor of my favourite Dublin venue where John and I took our seats in close proximity to the stage. We were joined by Ann for the duration of the show as she gave up her seat at the back and was fortunate to find a stool beside us. The crowd was mostly composed of a more mature audience that you would find at, say, a Lady GaGa concert and everyone gave Elvis and his backing band a rousing welcome as they took to the stage sometime after eight

The band started off with Junior Parker’s Mystery Train, a song made famous by the other Elvis, one of a number of well-chosen covers that would be scattered throughout the night’s two-hour and 28-song set. The others included countrified versions of The Grateful Dead’s Friend of the Devil, Tampa Red’s Don’t Lie to Me, Nick Lowe’s Peace, Love and Understanding, The Rolling Stones’ Happy and two songs by George Jones, The Race is On and Good Year For the Roses. He also included a snippet of Hendrix’s The Wind Cries Mary on Alison and made The Beatles’ You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away part of a medley with his own New Amsterdam. He recorded versions of Peace, Love and Understanding and Good Year for the Roses over three decades ago and, while I felt that the former worked brilliantly here, I thought that the new arrangement of the latter was less effective than the one on Almost Blue

The whole show was done in a country and bluegrass style because Elvis was backed by The Sugarcanes, the band that played on his recent album, Secret, Profane and Sugarcane. The six-piece from those recordings joined him on stage in Dublin and included Mike Compton on mandolin, Stuart Duncan on fiddle and banjo, Dennis Crouch on bass and Jeff Taylor on accordion. Its most well-known members, however, are Jim Lauderdale on guitar and Jerry Douglas on dobro and both musicians also provided excellent backing vocals and harmonies throughout. You’ll notice that there was no percussionist involved and none was required as the seven guys on stage didn’t need one. I hadn’t been familiar with any of the songs on the album beforehand, but I really enjoyed the four they played at Vicar Street. The Crooked Line and Sulphur to Sugarcane were good, but the ones that stood out for me were Down Among the Wines and Spirits and a reworked version of Complicated Shadows that had originally appeared on his All This Useless Beauty album

Complicated Shadows wasn’t the only one he reworked as Elvis and the band also treated us to acoustic versions from the rest of his back catalogue. Girls Talk and The Delivery Man fitted well into this bluegrass style, although the reinterpretation of Everyday I Write The Book was less successful, but interesting nonetheless. More surprisingly, earlier punk and new wave faves such as Blame It On Cain, Mystery Dance and Red Shoes worked really well as country songs, while slower numbers such as the aforementioned New Amsterdam, Alison and Shipbuilding were delivered acoustically and, in the latter case, movingly. It was less of a surprise that he chose two songs from my favourite album of his, the country-flavoured King of America. About an hour into the show, he delivered an impassioned reading of Little Palaces and finished up the evening with a wonderful version of American Without Tears

It seems that Costello is going to continue his musical relationship with The Sugarcanes as there are plans to release a second album with them later this year. American Ransom is its current working title. If the quality of the six unreleased songs he played at Vicar Street are anything to go by, it looks like it has the makings of another fine album. Normally, it can be a chore having to sit through works-in-progress, but not these. Poor Borrowed Dress, A Slow Drag With Josephine and the mod-flavoured The Spell That You Cast were good, but the other three were even better. On Condemned Man, Costello channels the spirit of Johnny Cash on a song about a man on death row who recounts the various methods that could be used to execute him. In the first verse, the judge tells the prisoner, “Soon we’ll be giving you 10,000 volts”. “Make that twenty-five,” taunts Costello in the persona of the defiant prisoner. Costello summons up the ghost of another icon of American country music on That’s Not the Part of Him You’re Leaving, a song of unrequited love that recalls some of Hank Williams Snr’s finest work. Finally, the band switches from the country of Nashville to the cabaret of Berlin on the Bertolt Brecht-influenced Jimmie Standing in the Rain, a cinematic song that evokes 1950s film noir

Not only was the music a big change from the last time I saw Elvis play live, but his mood was completely different as well. Throughout the gig, the band and its leader were in a jovial mood as they smiled and joked with each other and this air of conviviality spread like wildfire around the venue. The cranky singer I had seen in London had been replaced by a playful comedian who made jokes about the English football team, Bob Dylan and even himself. In addition, the gospel influences of bluegrass began to seep through the music on stage as the decidedly non-religious person whose words you are reading actually got a spiritual vibe from the music, though it might just have been goosebumps. In any case, I went home in a very good mood and it’s lasted the whole week. I went in to the gig as a bit of a lapsed fan of Elvis Costello, but now I’m born again. Here’s a version of the song by The Beatles that he sang at the gig as well as one written by the subject of my next post

You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away (Beatles cover) – Elvis Costello

You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go (Bob Dylan cover) – Elvis Costello

Elvis Costello Setlist, July 1st, 2010, Vicar Street, Dublin

Mystery Train
Blame It On Cain
Down Among The Wines And Spirits
New Amsterdam/You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away
Good Year For The Roses
Condemned Man
Complicated Shadows
(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes
The Delivery Man
Jimmie Standing In The Rain
A Slow Drag With Josephine
Little Palaces
Friend Of The Devil
Everyday I Write The Book
Don’t Lie To Me

First Encore

Girls Talk
The Spell That You Cast
That’s Not The Part Of Him You’re Leaving
Sulphur To Sugarcane

Second Encore

Mystery Dance
Poor Borrowed Dress
Alison/The Wind Cries Mary
Shipbuilding
(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding?

Third Encore

The Crooked Line
Happy
The Race Is On
American Without Tears

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2 thoughts on “Indoor Fireworks

  1. I’ve been searching for that Dylan cover literally for months, thank you so much for uploading it!

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