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When Elvis Costello strode onto the stage of the NTelos Pavilion on the night of 23 June, it was the first time he’d set foot on a stage in the Hampton Roads area (generally defined as Norfolk, Portsmouth, Chesapeake, Virginia Beach, Hampton, and Newport News, Virginia) in almost 20 years. The last time on record was, to be precise, on 2 August 1984, when he played Hampton Coliseum.
23 Jun 2002: NTelos Pavilion Portsmouth, Virginia
At that time, he was still touring with the Attractions; these days, the Imposters back him. It takes but a quick check of the Imposters’ line-up, however, to prove that, though the name might have changed, at least two-thirds of the group remains the same. Drummer Pete Thomas and keyboard extrordinaire Steve Nieve are still in tow; plucking the bass in place of Bruce Thomas, however, is Davey Faragher, late of Cracker.
But, of course, it wasn’t the trio of Thomas, Nieve, and Faragher that the audience paid the big bucks to see. (Okay, perhaps that’s a little presumptuous… but, come now; it’s not very likely, is it?) It was one Declan Patrick MacManus.
It’s a potentially combustible mix when you mix a large number of holier-than-thou music journalists and record store employees with a crowd of folks who only know an artist from his radio hits. The former get giddy at the sound of “Honey Are You Straight Or Are You Blind?” and can barely control themselves as they tell their significant other, “I can’t believe he’s playing something from Blood & Chocolate!” Meanwhile, the latter get progressively more pissed off as “Veronica” and “Everyday I Write The Book” continue to seemingly escape the memory of the man who wrote and sang them.
In this case, however, by playing in front of a crowd who hadn’t seen him on their turf in nigh on two decades, pleasing the audience was, for Elvis, probably kinda like shooting fish in a barrel.
Costello started the festivities off in the same fashion he started his latest album, When I Was Cruel: with “45”. He revisited the album rather a lot throughout the course of the evening, with “Spooky Girlfriend”, “15 Petals”, “Tart”, “Dust” (or was it “Dust 2”?), “Alibi”, “Episode of Blonde”, and the album’s first single, “Tear Off Your Own Head (It’s a Doll’s Revolution)”. The songs, while not exactly the crunchy power pop hits of Costello’s early years (excluding the single, of course), fit comfortably alongside such tracks as “Clown Strike” (from Brutal Youth) and “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror (from Spike). During the course of the evening, Steve Nieve favored the crowd with a few theramin solos, which were decidedly entertaining to watch on the large video screens, as he waved his hands above the instrument and produced a wide range of squeals and squawks.
Those waiting expectantly for Elvis Costello’s Greatest Hits didn’t likely leave disappointed. Elvis had no problem trotting out the classics. “Watching The Detectives” was the night’s third song, and “Alison” was nestled snugly in the middle of the evening, allowing the more casual fans to slip out unnoticed and call it an early evening. Other highlights of the evening were “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea”, “High Fidelity”, “Sulky Girl”, “No Action”, and an emotional “Shipbuilding”.
The main set ended with the incredible one-two punch of “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding?” and “Radio Radio”. At the end of the latter, Costello threw in just enough of the Chuck Berry standard “Promised Land”, just to show that he knew he was just across the water from “Norfolk, VA”. (Whether he had California on his mind when he later left Norfolk remains unconfirmed.)
The two encores were a mix of old and new, each featuring a track from When I Was Cruel while also throwing a bone to the fans. The first encore opened with “Alibi”, followed by “You Belong to Me”. After a rousing “Pump It Up” and another departure from the stage, the crowd began to thin again, but Elvis and the Imposters popped back out for “Episode of Blonde” and a reworked version of “Lipstick Vogue”, then closed the evening with a lengthy, wrenching version of “I Want You”.
It was a downbeat way to end an incredible evening, but, since that’s the worst criticism this writer can manage for the evening, all things considered, that ain’t so bad. No, sir, that ain’t so bad at all.