What a flashback. By the middle of the first song of this show, I realized that I had occupied the same seat in the same venue at an Elvis show three years ago. That night, Elvis and keyboardist Steve Nieve—with neither bassist nor drummer in tow—put on one of the best concerts I have ever seen. I remember feeling totally high after that show, the way I imagine a junkie does after trying crack for the first time.
My memories of that night surely colored my experience of this one, but contending with the unrelenting hype surrounding the current Elvis album and tour proved even more challenging. In practically every magazine I read, there is Elvis. A nostalgic marketing machine in overdrive has proclaimed the return of the good, old, reliably angry Costello. His current campaign reunites him with Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas, two of the three members of the Attractions, the group with which he recorded his initial, beloved albums.
This was supposed to be the “High Fidelity” wet dream of every rock snob, but I am not buying it. For much of the show, the Imposters played raucously, almost sloppily. Elvis shouted instead of singing. The structural beauty of his songs and the character of his distinctive voice were, to a certain degree, buried.
Even more troubling, most of the ten live renditions of songs that made Elvis famous a quarter century ago—from “Waiting for the End of the World” to “You Belong to Me”—sounded exactly like the original recordings. Subjected to this by-the-numbers treatment, even gems like “Watching the Detectives” and “What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding” lost their luster.
This is not to say that I did not want to hear any old favorites, but there are ways to approach the classics that gives them new life. For example, Elvis succeeded ably with his inspired version of “Clowntime is Over”, easily the highlight of his performance. Colored by Nieve’s swelling organ licks and some beautiful, acappella Elvis vocals, the song sounded like a passionately conveyed confession. Arrangements of “Brilliant Mistake” and “I Want You” also displayed some inventiveness. Elvis would be wise to thank Nieve for his daring playing, which enlivened more than a few of the chestnuts he sprinkled through his set.
Though tuneful songwriting and crowd participation did redeem performances of at least a few of the new songs—particularly “Tart” and “Alibi”—most of the 10 numbers Elvis played from When I Was Cruel seemed somewhat dishonest. Sonically and vocally, some of these songs sounded even rougher and angrier than those from his earliest albums. They cast Elvis as an older, meaner version of the angry young man who burst into the public consciousness in 1977. Yet the fact that the title of the new album is in the past tense leads me to believe that he does not in fact fit that mold. Frankly, Elvis circa 2002 seems to me to be more mature and serene than furious and vengeful.
In the end, what best characterized my disappointment with this show was the sad irony of hearing a rote version of “Radio Radio”, an unabashed attack on marketing, in the context of this highly marketed tour. I know Elvis can do better than this. Hopefully, he will leave the marketers off the stage next time. He stands a better chance of pleasing this fan without them.