It’s difficult to find one musical genre Elvis Costello hasn’t yet tried and mastered. How many other singer/songwriters have recorded in Nashville, as well as with a string quartet? And we’re not just talking about sleep-walking through a Guitar Town session or sweetening a recording with strings. Costello has proven he can write a great country song; he has also trained his voice to sing opera. And let’s not forget that Costello he originally came of age during the punk era—he can rock better than most. For the fleet of foot, chasing after Elvis reaps many musical surprises.
Costello’s set list for this concert DVD explores a wide range of the man’s productive career. The vitriolic “Pump It Up” (from the ‘70s) comes up quickly, as the second song in the set, while “I Want To Vanish”, something from the more recent ‘90s, is also included along the way. Among these 20 selections, Costello even covers The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows”. But everyone who has seen Costello live knows that he always has room for a cover song or two.
This artist’s versatility is further expressed by the three separate groups he performs with. Naturally, his punk band, The Attractions, plays on rockers like “Pump It Up”. And don’t forget, the Attractions are one fine band. You’d be hard pressed to find a better bassist then Bruce Thomas, a drummer on par with Pete Thomas, and someone as incomparable as pianist Steve Nieve. Utilizing Band Two, the performance of “I Almost Had a Weakness” draws upon the classical music strengths of The Brodsky Quartet. For “Upon a Veil of Midnight Blue”, which the talented Bill Frisell arranged, The White City Septet’s horns and woodwinds give this composition the larger lineup treatment. It’s a case of loud (Attractions), formal (The Brodsky Quartet), and orchestral (The White City Septet).
In any and all instrumental groupings, Costello looks and sounds right at home. And his between-song patter is almost as entertaining as the performances. For instance, it’s a hoot to hear Costello recount the way he explained “Indoor Fireworks” to country star Ricky Skaggs. His line about the “gin in my vermouth” stumped Skaggs because cowboys, apparently, just don’t drink martinis.
One telling measure of a song’s greatness is how well it stands the test of time. For example, “Shipbuilding” was written in the ‘80s to protest England’s involvement in the Falkland Islands conflict. But with Iraq in mind, its words still ring true today, putting all military futility into chilling perspective. Costello wishes we could be “diving for pearls”, a beautiful metaphor for peaceful pursuits, instead of all “this shipbuilding”. Alas Chet Baker, the jazz trumpeter who played such a memorable solo on its original recording, is no longer with us.
Unlike so many self-centered singer/songwriters who only seem to write about themselves, Costello knows how to write about a wide variety of subjects. “Pump It Up” is obviously about someone with a big ego problem. Yet when Costello does get personal, such as with “Veronica”, about his grandmother, it is a touching slice of family life. He wrote this particular song with Paul McCartney.
I’ll never forget David Lee Roth’s famous quote about Elvis Costello, which he said right around the time Costello came on the scene. Roth was convinced that many critics loved Costello simply because they looked a lot like him. (Remember Costello’s early, horn-rimmed glasses days? He looked more like Clark Kent than a true rock star). But if you’ve seen Roth lately, you know he’s not nearly the cool-looking guy he once was. In fact, I think Costello has aged much better than many of his contemporaries. Furthermore, it’s not hard to judge which of these artists has had the better career, overall; whereas Roth had brief solo success after leaving Van Halen, he’s best known these days as the guy who used to front Van Halen.
Costello is not the news-making, angry young man of his early career, but he’s continued to refine and expand his craft each and every year. Case For Song is filled with plenty of convincing evidence that Elvis Costello is guilty, beyond the shadow of a doubt, of being one highly creative cat.