This was not a show for the half-hearted. Even the nosebleed seats in the Beacon Theater that night ran a hefty $35. For prime position, concertgoers anted up over $100. The crowd was peopled with only the most dedicated of fans: those who’d modeled themselves after the second Elvis; those prepped to fall in love with a hero who could do no wrong; those who’d waited years to see their idol in action. For them, the show was to be a night of righteous and devout belief, a night of pilgrimage and reflection, and most of all, a night of incredible expectation.
The premise of the show they had come out to see—newly-scribed lyrics to accompany an experimental jazz band, new arrangements of old favorites—promised to be innovative and novel at best, off-putting and disappointing at worst. So when Elvis Costello, donning a slick leather jacket and dark glasses, joined the stage with the Charles Mingus Orchestra that night, he was readied to be taking what some would call unnecessary risks. Why try something new when you have a fan base that recognizes even the inhale that begins an old standard, that breath driving them toward mass hysteria? Why invent when you’ve got nearly a quarter century of material that’s the stuff of legends, movie soundtracks, and countless knock offs?
The answer to that question, Elvis showed, was simple. And beyond that, it was a truism that he’s always exercised in his music, from his beginnings in 1977, through his days with The Attractions, through his solo career and up until that night. Plainly said, Elvis Costello transcends being a simple musician, to act as a deep appreciator and connoisseur of music. Not satisfied with being a historical relic, Elvis devotes himself to re-defintion and creation; he promises to lead his audiences as well as teach them. And, perhaps most important, he hears potential and beauty in every note in every style. He goes where sound takes him.
The Charles Mingus Orchestra kicked off the night with two instrumental numbers that showcased their master technique and flair for both the standard and more avant-garde types of jazz. Almost immediately, though, it arose that the crowd and the jazz band were not a perfect match—the orchestra seemed used to playing in front of seasoned jazz aficionados, the crowd more sculpted on rock music. After the first musician soloed, the customary clapping took a while to get heated up, and even by the show’s end those applause seemed more perfunctory than passionate.
Elvis came on ready to reach out and connect with his constituency, reminding them that he was the same old Declan McManus they knew and loved. He was incredibly chatty and forthcoming, introducing every song with long-winded soliloquies that wove some kind of tale, either about his lyrics or the history of Charles Mingus. Before playing “Clubland”, the first song of the night that was completely his material, he mentioned he was about to play “a song I wrote a long, long time ago.” It was a refreshing modesty, both charming and sweet, and caused the crowd to burst into ferocious applause once they recognized the tune.
But despite his wiles, the show was overwhelmingly puzzling. First, he performed very little of his own material; when he did, the arrangements ranged from curious to confusing. “Clubland”, for instance, was set against a salsa beat that slowed on the chorus with cartoonish grandiosity, making it difficult to navigate. “Watching the Detectives” had a mismatching rhythm that at times seemed like a mistake. Some of the Mingus numbers he lyricized suffered the same dilemma. The poetry was right on, but they seemed, well, like they didn’t need lyrics. One of the biggest troubles was “Don’t be Afraid, The Clown’s Afraid, Too”, a multiphonic, freaky windfall over which Elvis crooned almost desperately, like the Little Engine that Could trying to chug up that final hill. It was if Elvis got so carried away with working with a jazz band that he forgot that this was his show, that some of these where his songs; as a result, their poignancy was lost.
But Elvis did every single second of the show with heart. His voice was stunning and remarkably indistinguishable from the way he sounded on My Aim is True. “Long Honeymoon” was a heartbreaking display of sorrow and sensitivity. And even on the numbers where the execution faltered, his voice never did—always clear as bell and rock solid.
It’s not a surprise that for every fan who left feeling reborn, there was one who left feeling disappointed, betrayed, or just plain confused by what happened. But, given their devotion, I doubt there was a person in that audience who, if given the chance, wouldn’t have done it all over again. Because even if he doesn’t always act like one, there’s one right that he’s earned by being a living legend: loyalty.