King of Americana

So Elvis Costello is playing in town tonight. I am a fan. I admire a lot of things about Elvis besides the fact that he’s written hundreds of songs, a very high percentage of which I find listenable, dozens I think are pretty great, and at least a handful I don’t know how I lived without. (Not ’til I was 22 did a pal give me a copy of the The Very Best of Elvis Costello & The Attractions, if you can believe.)

Admittedly, my can’t-live-without E.C. playlist does not include anything from, say, the album he made with Anne Sofie von Otter, or the one he made with Burt Bacharach. But I commend his adventurousness and versatility, and especially his work ethic: He’s always giving songs away, interviewing Lou Reed or Bruce Springsteen or Bill Clinton on premium cable, singing on other people’s records, teaching himself musical notation 20 years into his career, composing a ballet, making unaccountable cameos in movies like Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, writing an opera, and here and there tossing off another perfectly nasty rock song like it’s nothing. Dude always has four projects cooking and and nine more on the back burner, and he seems to pay for his collection of funny hats by flying around playing concerts that seldom repeat a setlist and regularly clock in around two-and-a-half hours. So: Respect.

Of course, Elvis’s productivity and idiomatic wanderlust are the selfsame qualities that can make him seem like an annoying magpie, especially to listeners who only want to hear him spit venom about Liv Tyler’s mom while keyboardist Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas open up the throttle.

If you’re one of those, I have some bad news about tonight’s gig: It probably won’t be a rowdy, take-no-prisoners show like he still plays with The Imposters. Accompanying him at the lovely Warner Theater will be The Sugarcanes, the retinue of roots ringers he assembled for last year’s collection, Secret, Profane, and Sugarcane. *

Here they are:

Some of you are not thrilled by this. Some of you are fools.

Hey, I like the strong shit, too. But Elvis has always had an affinity for sad-sack, old-timey country. One of his finest efforts in this vein, “Stranger in the House,” was an outtake from his first album, My Aim Is True. “Including a country ballad was not thought to be a smart move in 1977,” he wrote in the liner notes of one of the album’s innumerable reissues.** But he hardly buried the tune — it showed up frequently in late 70s setlists, and he gave away a free 45 of it with This Year’s Model in 1978 (perhaps believing that album brutal enough to shut up anyone inclined to accuse him of sentimentality). He even recorded a duet version with one of his heroes, George Jones.

So Elvis has always been a little bit country, but not every Elvis lover loves Country Elvis. While his first three or five albums are universally admired, he’s made 18 bajillion more since, which necessarily means that not every one of them is strictly, like, necessary. The first to be widely written off was Almost Blue,*** a set of country covers he recorded in Nashville in 1981. If Elvis’s versions of these songs could hardly be called definitive, he introduced at least a few of his listeners to some classic material by the likes of Hank Williams, Gram Parsons, and Merle Haggard.

Anyway. Almost Blue‘s 2004 CD reissue of included, like all the reissues in that series, a second disc of rarities and ephemera. These are always of variable interest, but in the case of Blue, I prefer the side dishes to the main course. I’m particularly fond of a seven-song, 20-minute excerpt from a Feb. 1979 gig at North Hollywood’s Palomino Club wherein The Attractions are joined by John McFee on slide guitar. It’s an early taste of Country Elvis, preceding the recording of Almost Blue by more than two years. Elvis sings with more sensitivity and gentleness than on any live recording I’ve heard from this early in his career.

The sequence:

“Radio Sweetheart” — one of the first songs Elvis wrote, and one I first heard the first time I saw him play, in 1999.

“Stranger in the House” — Glorious lament about a marriage or live-in romance gone cold. Often performed by the Attractions in this era, McFee’s tearjerking slide work puts this version over the top. I can’t post it here, but here’s a version Elvis and George Jones performed together on HBO in 1981. Elvis had the mumps.

“Psycho” — Chilling yet hilarious first-person murder ballad by Leon Payne. I first heard it on a Halloween night broadcast of creep-out songs on Santa Monica’s KCRW. Since Elvis’s spoken introduction on the Palomino recording mistakenly attributes the song to Jack Kittel, here’s the Kittel version:

“If I Could Put Them All Together I’d Have You” — Credited to Even Stevens, which, just right there, come on, awesome. It’s a basically a tear-in-my-bear extrapolation of the “while she may be cute, she’s just a substitute” line from “Tracks of My Tears” by Smokey Robinson, another old master Elvis adores and has frequently covered.

“Motel Matches” — An early take of what would end up sounding like a soul song once it turned up on Get Happy!! a year later. This honky-tonk version has the same chorus as the final version, but very different verses. But the “Who shot Sam?” line is already there. On the liner notes of the 1989 Girls Girls Girls compilation, Elvis recalls that on his first visit to Los Angeles, someone pulled his leg and convinced him he was staying in the very hotel room where Sam Cooke was killed in 1964. Apparently Elvis wanted to pass the leg-pull along, because the line would seem to refer to the George Jones song “Who Shot Sam?” rather than the in-a-motel shooting death of Sam Cooke. But who knows, people — it’s art.

“He’ll Have to Go” — Credited to Joe Allison and Audrey Allison, though with its “ditch that guy, the one who’s there at your place right now for me” message, it would’ve fit right in on This Year’s Model.

“Girls Talk” — Always one of my favorite E.C. rarities, which he later recalled he’d “given away to Dave Edmunds in a moment of drunken bravado.” I like that Edmunds version, too.

And because there’s always a fair chance any of the hundreds of songs Elvis has written — including dozens I think are great and a handful I can’t live without — might return unannounced to the setlist, we could be hearing one or more of these gems tonight.

*The prior E.C. album Sugarcane most resembles is 1986’s King of America, which at least one smart critic thinks is the last Elvis album you need. It’s got a country/blues/rockabilly vibe, and The Attractions appear on only one song. The others are performed by a group of studio all-stars, three of whom played with that other Elvis for the final eight years of his life.

**Elsewhere, Elvis recalls a request from Stiff Records brass for him to stop playing The Best of George Jones on his tour bus’s stereo so as not to “confuse visiting journalists.”

***Since you didn’t ask, the album Almost Blue does not include Elvis’s original song “Almost Blue,” which appeared later on Imperial Bedroom. I know that’s confusing. Sorry.

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