Elvis Costello & the Imposters, Ryman Auditorium, January 29, 2024

Blood and hot sauce

Elvis Costello & the Imposters, Ryman Auditorium, January 29, 2024

[ed. note: I wrote this on my iPad at the airport & the workflow was too clunky to add media, I’ve added some now but also you can find more on instagram]

Famous last words: I did not know there was going to be a horn section.

When I received the email newsletter from Elvis Costello announcing his winter tour, I saw there was a show in Nashville at the Ryman Auditorium. There was an opportunity to purchase tickets through a fan service. I have never seen a show at the Ryman (I have tried!), I haven’t been to Nashville in 10 years, I have friends I wanted to see, it’s a quick trip from Detroit, I fly in the day before, fly out the following day. No big deal. I have meals with friends, I visit the National Museum of African American Music, I have dinner, I stroll across the street and inside the Mother Church.

Also exciting: my assigned seat. I said “yes I will sit anywhere in these sections” and was in the third row right up against the stage. This meant that I would not see Pete Thomas all night and if Elvis was planning to go play mad scientist with his tape loop box that’s in front of Steve Nieve’s grand piano for any length of time, I would not be able to see him. But otherwise I had a straight shot to Elvis and everyone’s favorite snack, Charlie Sexton, as well as the rock bottom solid and ever reliable Davy Faragher.

I was finally seeing a show at the Ryman! I was sitting in one of the pews. Those unmistakable stained glass windows were just over my shoulder. I was still vibrating at a pretty high frequency by the time I settled into my seat and this is why I think I did not register that there were three microphones in front of me with accompanying music stands as well as a random ancient flugelhorn, because under normal circumstances I would have of course immediately realized that horns were afoot. So this is why when, a few songs in, Elvis asks us to welcome some special guests and on walk a three-piece horn section, one of which was Donny McCaslin, it was all I could do to not completely lose my shit.

But even if I had been prepared for this show at my usual levels it would not have mattered because this show ended up being fucking bonkers. He played for three hours. He veered all over his catalog and his history and exercised his considerable skill as a raconteur. I was prepared for another free jazz exploration where Elvis pulls his songs apart and then reassembles them differently, and the Imposters basically do their best to follow him. But instead we got three hours of songs across the eras, the kind of show where you cannot possibly predict what is going to happen next. If you look at the earlier sets, they are also wide-ranging, but they were not at all at this level.

The first clue was with the second song, 1983’s “Pills and Soap,” which was released as a single in the UK under the nom de guerre “The Imposter,” but the voice and the vehemence gave the game away to anyone with a functioning pair of ears. At the time it was understood to be a condemnation of the sensationalism of the British press and the attempt to reinvigorate the monarchy. You don’t need to know that to feel the anger and betrayal. I’ve never seen it live, and I saw multiple shows on the Punch the Clock tour. It is a slightly out of body experience hearing a song you knew so long ago, that moment when a dark corner of your brain unlocks and you realize you know every word and every note.

this goes out to the dude who was absolutely certain he was a more legit fan than I was

I have this rule about not listening to an artist I’m on my way to see but yet I listened to Get Happy! on the way to Nashville. I thought, “This is safe, he will never do anything from this record” and I fucking love “you lack lust/you’re so lackluster” - he had that turn of phrase emanate from his brain and he worked it into a song with zero self-consciousness. It is a song that requires horns and we have horns, the lineup of Donny McCaslin, Ray Mason and Michael Leonhart. It is the third song of the set and I am already in that state of ecstatic disbelief and thankful excitement, I want to sing every word and I want to listen twice as hard and HERE IS THE LINE, THAT LINE, I captured exactly that 15 seconds on video because I needed to have proof for myself that I was here at this particular moment.

Elvis wants to be a good bandleader and yet it is not one of his strong suits, but he would have better luck at it if his band had figured out how to follow him. That said, this group of gentlemen are not unskilled at their craft and the solution to this was the gentleman over on stage left, everyone’s favorite snack, Mr. Charlie Sexton. He’s the one everyone has eyes on and he’s the one who keeps it all moving. He is both absolutely solid and yet completely malleable. This is undoubtably one of the many reasons why Bob loved him. They are still working out their communication, because Elvis still does that hand-wave-y thing behind his back trying to get the band to bring it down whereas Charlie does it by tilting his head to the left ever so slightly. I mention this not as a criticism but rather as an observation, because observing how a group of talented musicians work together is very much my jam. It is also charming how despite all of the years and the shows and the work there is still room to progress. You could rehearse the show more tightly and none of this would happen, but this is the form Elvis Costello chooses to work with. It is harder and it is braver and it is a million times more interesting. It’s not lazy or sloppy.

When he did “Licorice On Your Tongue” last summer everyone thought it was one of those records that Elvis bought in “San Antone” (he loves saying that, he’s allowed to) but it’s an original actually and tonight instead of doing this deconstructed thing that’s probably closer Nels Cline, tonight it’s a big band arrangement by way of New Orleans, which is what you want to do if you have a horn section. It’s the same song but it’s not, but the fact that this one song can be remixed in this fashion speaks to the strength of the underlying composition.

Elvis tells us about going record shopping in Texas, and I know he is not making this up because he walked into my friend’s store in New Orleans and dropped a significant amount of coin and I’m only mentioning that because he shouted out Euclid Records from the stage in NOLA. What triggered my bullshit meter is his statement that the names of the songs and the originators were scratched off of the labels and that he, Elvis, looked up the serial numbers. Elvis has clearly not ever had to deal with the state of music metadata in 2024 to know how impossible that is, but it’s a confidence game he is allowed to play because he is a scholar even though he is fucking with every music writer who is not good at their job and who reviews a show and takes him at his word. As a researcher and a historian I say “proves them right” but as a researcher and historian I know I’ll be arguing with some Reply Guy in 10 years that no, he did not buy this record in Ithaca, NY, he told the people in Detroit that he bought it in Cleveland.

At the conclusion of “Licorice” he yells “BLACKOUT! BLACKOUT!” and the stage goes dark. It wasn’t obviously immediate that the next song was “Watching the Detectives,” I was pretty sure it was but you had to be very keyed into the notes, because he had chopped it up and realigned it sideways like an old time carnival ride. The horns could have been too much in this moment but they were perfect, they were perfect all night, there was not one moment where I thought “okay too much” but then again these were top flight players. (You don’t play with David fucking Bowie unless you have some quality of both innovation and also integrity.)

“Detectives” was the moment when everyone realized that this was going to be a special show. “Detectives” is always a favorite for me, it will never stop being a favorite, the stop jump noir of the bridge, “she’s filing her nails while they’re dragging the lake,” come ON, that is fucking genius. It is an entire movie in one line. That breathless cadence of the last verse is this marvelous execution of tension and shading. It will never be tired for me. I get emotional thinking about my relationship with this artist because of this song, the years and years and years of it being a continuum in my life. Just astonishment and gratitude, and OH MY GOD THIS SHOW IS UNBELIEVABLE. I was not looking for epiphany when I decided to come to Nashville for this show.

“Mexican Divorce” into “Brilliant Mistake” is in a form that seems inconceivable, but it probably shouldn’t be because if you are a student of Burt Bacharach you were trying to do what he was doing, at least some aspect of it. But you have to possess the vision that guides you into how to untangle it and then you have to do the actual work of untangling and putting it back together into a form that equals or surpasses the original. It’s not “let’s do this rock song acoustic” or vice versa. It is the openness and the trust in yourself that knows that the songs can stand up to it and that you have the tools to do this work effectively. He mentions how he can call Burt Bacharach a friend. I think of my childhood listening to my mother playing Burt Bacharach songs on one of those massive mid-century modern stereo consoles, sunlight streaking through the blinds onto the living room floor. I feel dumb for not seeing this connection until this moment.

Now that I’ve seen two shows in this era of Elvis it is obvious to me that he’s decided that this era of his career is about challenging himself in these ways, and that he relishes the challenge. It’s not that he’s bored — he sang “Alison” like it just came out — I sense there is something about craft, about the actual work of composition and songwriting - there’s a reason he wanted to work with McCartney and Burt Bacharach because these are people who understand/understood the craft of songwriting. The craft is what kept Tin Pan Alley and the Brill Building humming. Some of that was quantity but the quantity is the continual application of the craft.

“Clubland” was introduced by a story about a party bus pulling up in front of him and that he hoped the girls were having a great night. “Clubland” had Steve Nieve running from organ to grand piano and back again, before grabbing a Melodica and booking over to center stage to play the last line with Elvis. I saw him sing this in the 80s at one point and I remember him doing a motion with his arm that immediately explained “come to shoot the pony/come to do the jerk.” I listened hard for those little bits of rocket ship feedback that you hear in the background of the record, not as though I was auditing the performance but because I can never not remember that they are in the song.

“I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down” is one of those songs I appreciate more now than I did when it came out. I wished he would have reworked his version into something that could have used the horns, but then that would be just doing a carbon copy of the original and not his version. Have you ever stopped to think that Elvis got the vibe of the song right and Jerry Wexler did not? It would have been a better match for Sam & Dave.

“High Fidelity” with the horns. No one is clamoring for a Get Happy! resurgence and they should. That record is 100% flawless. This moment is 100% flawless. However, I reached that conclusion before Larkin Poe came out onstage and I now realize this is going to be my moment of experiencing Clover backing Elvis because here’s “Blame It On Cain” which I have never heard, there is no way I ever saw this live, I was a child — Elvis kept making jokes that none of us were born before certain things happened — that jump from My Aim Is True to This Year’s Model, it shouldn’t have worked but it worked because the lyrics and the intensity were identical, if anything they were higher pitched on the first album because it was the first record, it was the first chance he had at a musical life.

I kept forgetting to take notes because I was so thoroughly entranced and delighted and full of gratitude and disbelief that I was here in this fucking great seat and watching this absolutely bananas Elvis Costello concert. What the actual fuck is going on? How is this happening? Well, that is the thing I do, I figure those things out. But I kept forgetting to write things down because I was sure that I had said everything I had to say about this particular era of Costello so I didn’t bother to put a notebook into my cute purse. This meant I had to keep typing badly into my phone’s notepad whenever I did remember that I was going to want to write about this absolutely bananapants show.

He kept making Marx Brothers jokes. He kept walking around the stage and talking to us without any regard to whether or not a microphone was adjacent because the size of the venue and its acoustics mean that You can do that at the Ryman, he knows you can do that at the Ryman, but it was surreal because here is Declan McManus just having a casual Monday night chat about the first time he played in Nashville and how on that tour Carl Perkins was supposed to be tour support, but Sharon Osbourne’s father died and he ran the record label Perkins was on so they pulled back the tour support and Carl Perkins couldn’t come. They got the Rubinoos — “perfectly fine band from Berkeley, but they ain’t Carl fucking Perkins”

[I’d ask you to tell me what the connection is from the Rubinoos to Bruce Springsteen but then someone would just google it and that defeats the point. YOU HAVE TO KNOW THIS STUFF. WHEN YOU KNOW THIS STUFF THEN IT JUST ENHANCES YOUR ENTIRE UNDERSTANDING OF THE ART FORM YOU LOVE]

My favorite line in “(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding”:

Where are the strong? / And who are the trusted?

No matter how lame a version of this song I hear someone else who is not Elvis Costello or Nick Lowe do, I just wait for that line because it always hits hard, it hits home, no matter what else is going on in the world. I always forgive the lameness of the group jam that is usually involved.

It is a continual conversation with these pieces of art. It is a continuum. It is about our relationship with them, not just the memories they are attached to, but the way we relate to the song at the time we are hearing it. For a lot of people, it is as simple as, that was my favorite song when I was 22. But everyone has the ability to have a living, breathing interaction with a piece of art.

Friends of mine were going backstage after the show to talk to their friend in the band. I texted her: “Please tell him this was the best show I have ever seen in my life.” It’s up there. I’ll stand by this.

Set list: A Town Called Riddle / Pills and Soap / Possession / We Are All Cowards Now / My Baby Just Squeals (You Heal) / I Don’t Want Your Lyndon Johnson - Gimme That Wine / Like Licorice on Your Tongue / Watching the Detectives / Poisoned Rose / Blood & Hot Saurce / Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy / Mexican Divorce > Brilliant Mistake > Boulevard of Broken Dreams / Clubland (Ghost Town > Insensatez) / Clown Around Town / Blame It on Cain (with Larkin Poe) / Burn the Paper Down to Ash (with Larkin Poe) / That’s Not The Part of Him You’re Leaving / The Comeians / I Do (Zula’s Song) / Almost Blue / Someone Took the Words Away / I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down / High Fidelity / Pump It Up / Alison / Deep Dark Truthful Mirror / Shipbuilding / (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding