Monday, November 25, 2019

Watch Your Step: In Mining His Prodigious Past, Elvis Costello Strays From the Beaten Path -- Chicago Concert Review

Concert Review

Elvis Costello and the Imposters
Chicago Theatre
November 22, 2019

A variety of engaging still images, typically shown as a matching or complementary trio, formed the backdrop for Elvis Costello's concert with the Imposters Friday night at the ornate Chicago Theatre.

Some were rather abstract graphics, others found Costello cheekily playing up his look on the cover of 1978’s This Year’s Model and, during “Watching the Detectives,” there were dozens of classic film noir posters, many in languages besides English.

All of these made for fun visuals to accompany the music; some were presumably new while others had also been part of the last Chicago show I saw Costello do, outside on Northerly Island in 2017, also with the Imposters.

My favorite of these images was shown repeatedly, but only before Elvis and the three musicians who comprise the Imposters took the stage. It's style was unlike any of the other graphics.

It was simply an ad promoting the first Chicago show by Elvis Costello and the Attractions--from which drummer Pete Thomas and pianist Steve Nieve remain in the Imposters--on December 2, 1977, in tandem with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

As shown on the ad, the price to get into a show featuring two of the greatest acts in rock history--though both still nascent at the time--was $3.00.

I was only 9 years old then and unaware of the show or either artist.

But just 3-1/2 years later, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers would be the first rock concert attended of my own volition--though accompanied by my dad--at a "free" show at the Rosemont Horizon, for which The Loop radio station gave away all the tickets.

The late TP remained one of my favorites, and I'd see him with the Heartbreakers several more times over the years.

It took a few more years for me to really know and appreciate Elvis Costello, but I was a fan by the mid-'80s and while living in Los Angeles in the early-'90s, I not only saw him live for the first time, I bought all of his then-available CDs in one fell swoop (beyond The Best of Elvis Costello & the Attractions compilation I already had).

Friday night was the 10th time I saw Costello onstage, mostly with the Imposters--who feature Danny Faragher on bass--including once opening for the Rolling Stones at Soldier Field on a freezing October night in 2006, as well as what was mostly a discussion & book signing (as part of the CHicago Humanities Festival), though he also played a few songs.

I wouldn't say I needed to see Elvis again at this just juncture, and didn't jump at tickets when they went on sale.

But enough seats remained available that--with the kind help of a friend willing to go to the Chicago Theatre box office on his lunch break even though he didn't attend--I was able to get a balcony seat for $38.50, without any Ticketmaster fees.

Costello is calling this the Just Trust Tour, explained as:

“The tour is entitled, ‘Just Trust’ in answer to the musical questions: ‘Will they play my favorite song?,’ or, ‘Are they going to frighten the horses with a lot of excellent songs that are rarely performed?,’ not to mention, ‘Can I expect the hits of yesteryear and those of tomorrow?’ To which we say: Just Trust Elvis Costello and The Imposters.” 

So--particularly in having seen via that their performances this fall were fairly lengthy and included several songs I love--I trusted.

And was, almost entirely, richly rewarded.

Sure, I rued not hearing one of my EC favorites, "Brilliant Mistake," which was done the night before
in Ann Arbor.

"(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" and "Radio, Radio" are a couple others I wish hadn't been eschewed on this night.

But Elvis Costello, now 65--he was born Declan MacManus--has released 30 studio albums, most of which have several stellar songs.

So there's no way he's gonna play everything everyone hopes to hear. (This was the Chicago setlist.)

And he noted early on that the tour's two female backing vocalists--who also serve as a visual foil for the four male musicians--were both out of commission with the flu, so the band was going to play some things they often don't. (The women being gone seemingly put the kibbosh on material from 2018's fine Look Now album, as only "He's Given Me Things" was played from it.)

Starting with opening song "Strict Time," I heard several familiar tunes that I quite enjoyed, including a cherished rarity like "Big Tears," a great take on "Accidents Will Happen" powered by sublime piano from Nieve, likewise a truly wistful "Almost Blue"--though of course, some assholes couldn't help chatter during this most delicate of songs--and a blissfully extended "I Want You."

There were several other recognizable gems from throughout Costello's vast oeuvre--"Watch Your Step," "Mystery Dance," "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea," "Veronica," "This Year's Girl," "High Fidelity" and the aforementioned, "Watching the Detectives."

Encores of "Pump It Up," "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" and "Alison" were as blissful as one could want.

And including a few pairing just Costello and Nieve, songs I didn't readily know--such as "Stations of the Cross," "I Still Have That Other Girl," "A Face in the Crowd" and "Blood and Hot Sauce"--routinely sounded terrific.

So it was certainly a great show, clocking in at nearly 135 minutes.

But whereas I had awarded Costello gigs in 2017, 2014 and 2013 a full @@@@@ on my Seth Saith rating scale, this one felt somewhat disjointed and uneven at times--perhaps due to changes resulting from the missing vocalists--despite all the sensational music and some fun storytelling from Costello.

Hence, the 1/2@ deduction.

Certainly this is critical trifling, and with the singer seemingly in good stead and great voice after he had to cancel some summer 2018 shows due to cancer--from which he's seemingly fully recovered--I'm happy to report that some 42 years after first playing in Chicago* on a bill with the dearly departed Tom Petty, one can trust in the ever-enduring greatness of Elvis Costello.

His aim is still true.

*Per, Elvis Costello's first Chicago area concert seemingly came at B'Ginnings in suburban Schaumburg, two days before the show at the Riv that I referenced above, which was the first in Chicago proper. It was followed by another gig at the Riv the next night, apparently without Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. The 12/2/77 show was not Petty's first in Chicago.

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