Live Last Night: Elvis Costello & The Sugarcanes

Elvis Costello 2009
No matter how many Will Ferrell flicks or Stephen Colbert Christmas specials Elvis Costello turns up in, the circa 1978 image of him as the logorheic and self-immolating Angry Young Man endures.

But in the latter two-thirds of his wildly eclectic career, he’s evolved into something more like the Martin Scorcese of music, as much a historian and curator as he is an original artist. Some would extend the Scorcese comparison to say that critics overpraise Elvis’s latter-day stuff out of affection for the more direct (and popular) work he did in the 70s and 80s. (And they’re wrong.) But nobody could deny his generosity as a live performer.

Last night as in several summers past, The Artist Formerly Known as Declan Patrick Aloysius MacManus indulged that curatorial impulse in an ingratiating and wide-ranging set at Wolf Trap. And as in the past, he brought along some estimable backup. The retinue of roots-music ringers included harmony singer/guitarist Jim Lauderdale, fiddler Stuart Duncan, and dobro player Jerry Douglas. It’s the same crew from Elvis’s just-released Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, a disarmingly ramshackle slice of Americana that finds Elvis at his headiest and goose-iest all at once.

Given that there were more chops onstage than in Jackie Chan’s entire filmography, the show was light on solos. Though the players had the dexterity and chemistry you’d expect, as a band they sometimes seemed too timid, as though determined not to upstage the songs.

But these songs — 31 of them — hold their own. The 155-minute set included most of the new disc, naturally. But as usual with this Elvis, it was the game of which cover versions he’d attempt, not to mention which oldies and oddities he’d resurrect from his own crazy-thick songbook, that gave the evening a delightful air of surprise.

Prof. MacManus’s music appreciation course included chestnuts from Hoagy Carmichael & Harold Adamson (“My Resistance Is Low”), Merle Haggard (“Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down”), and Lou Reed (“Femme Fatale,” in an arrangement decidedly more celebratory than the aching original). And that was just in the first half-dozen songs. Later, there would a be a dusty “Friend of the Devil.” And the two songs Elvis wrote for Johnny Cash.* And one he wrote with Loretta Lynn.** “She came out with a big box labeled ‘Songs,’ so I knew she meant business,” reminisced Elvis.

Elvis, of course, is a songwriting heavyweight his own self, and the vintage material he chose to adapt to the old-timey idiom came largely from his 1977 debut, My Aim Is True, and from a prior full-on foray into roots, 1986’s King of America.

Rarities? Check: “They’ll Never Take Her Love from Me,” his single with fellow Coward Brother and Sugarcane/King of America producer T-Bone Burnett. Or how about “American Without Tears No. 2,” which duplicates the original’s melody but offers a sequel in the lyrics? Maybe only four people in the house could identify it, but Elvis had persuaded most of the lawn to sing along by the end. After that, getting them to sing “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes” was a cinch.

Another crowd-pleaser was “Sulphur to Sugarcane,” the most light-hearted and hummable of the new songs. It didn’t hurt that the tune name-checks Virginia, along with enough second-and-third-tier cities (Sorry, Worcester, Mass!) to be a Hold Steady song, if only it had a few more references to Adderall.

The evening wasn’t perfect. It took half the show to get the sound mix right, and with all-acoustic instrumentation, you couldn’t not notice. Perhaps because it was his third marathon concert in as many nights, Elvis suffered some weakness in the pipes. Like a true pro, he apologized only once, pleading “New York air.” And he rebounded nicely for the hour’s worth of encores we’ve come to expect from him.

A shorter version of this review appears on Post Rock.

*”Hidden Shame,” which Johnny recorded, and “Complicated Shadows,” which he didn’t. But Johnny did cover Elvis’s “The Big Light,” which Elvis did not write explicitly for him.

**Elvis teased us — okay, me — with a couple of song titles from the Loretta-Elvis sessions: “Pardon Me, Madam, My Name Is Eve,” which nobody in the audience seemed to recognize as a song he had already released, on last year’s little-heard Momofuku. The other title sounded more intriguing: “Thank God for Jesus.”

Elvis Costello & The Sugarcanes at Wolf Trap, Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Setlist

01 My Resistance Is Low (Hoagy Carmichael & Harold Adamson)
02 All-Time Doll
03 Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down (Merle Haggard)
04 Down Among the Wine and Spirits
05 Our Little Angel
06 Femme Fatale (Lou Reed)
07 I Felt the Chill
08 Hidden Shame
09 The Delivery Man
10 The Butcher’s Boy (traditional)
11 Blame It on Cain
12 Indoor Fireworks
13 Condemned Man (as-yet-unrecorded; title tentative)
14 Friend of the Devil (Grateful Dead)
15 She Handed Me a Mirror
16 Every Day I Write the Book
17 Five Small Words (as-yet-unrecorded; title tentative)
18 She Was No Good
19 Little Palaces
20 Complicated Shadows
21 Brilliant Mistake

    ENCORE 1

22 Red Cotton
23 The Crooked Line
24 American Without Tears No. 2 (Twilight version)
25 (The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes

    ENCORE 2

26 Sulphur to Sugarcane
27 The Race Is On (Don Rollins)
28 Alison / He’ll Have to Go

    ENCORE 3

29 They’ll Never Take Her Love from Me
30 (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding? (Nick Lowe)
31 The Scarlet Tide

The Band

Mike Compton – mandolin
Dennis Crouch – double bass
Jerry Douglas – dobro
Stuart Duncan – fiddle
Jim Lauderdale – harmony vocals, guitar
Jeff Taylor – accordion
Elvis – lead vocal, guitar

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