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Posts Tagged ‘Elvis Costello’

(Above: Elvis Costello and the Imposters take the stage on a hot summer night at Crossroads KC.)

Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star 

Elvis Costello solved the age-old problem of what to do when an artist has too many great songs for one show – he brought them all onstage with him.

Costello’s “Spectacular Spinning Songbook” tour touched down at a crowded Crossroads on Thursday night. Behind the acclaimed songwriter’s left shoulder loomed a huge multi-colored wheel adorned with three dozen of his favorite songs. One at a time, members of the audience were invited up to spin the wheel and pick the next number.

“(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” usually an encore, came up early. So did “Earthworms,” a song Costello wrote for singer Wendy James in the early ‘90s but never recorded himself. When the wheel landed on Bob Dylan’s “This Wheel’s On Fire,” Costello let the crowd choose between that number and his own “Human Hands.” The headliner won out.

First employed in the late ‘80s, the spinning songbook is a novel way for the performer to experience his work in a new context. On that level it was a success. The quartet was tight and energetic, clearly feeding of the energy of the fans dancing along to their selections onstage. But the wheel also killed momentum and started to feel kind of gimmicky after a while.

That said there was indisputably some great music in between spins. A spooky “I Want You” and an extended reading of “Watching the Detectives” that played up the song’s dub roots were among the high points.

Many of the best moments came early. Costello and his Imposters took the stage in with many favorites in a potent 15-minute romp before introducing the wheel. The extended jam on “Uncomplicated” found Costello and bass player Davey Faragher trading lines from Jr. Walker’s “Shotgun.” The Motown connection returned during “Alison,” when Costello incorporated several of the verses from Smokey Robinson’s “Tracks of My Tears.”

Keyboard wizard Steve Nieve was the driving force on many songs, adding calliope runs to “Radio Radio,” a Theremin solo on “Peace, Love and Understanding” and sneaking some Stevie Wonder clavinet on “Shabby Doll.”

The night nearly ended with a brilliant three-song encore in which Costello and his band somehow took the jumpy “Pump It Up” straight into the reflective “Alison” before somehow ending up on a surprisingly strong version of Prince’s “Purple Rain.” Costello had other plans, however, returning with two thirds of the Lovell Sisters to play some bluegrass.

Setlist: I Hope You’re Happy Now; Heart of the City; Mystery Dance; Uncomplicated > Radio Radio; Talking in the Dark; Clubland; (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding; Earthbound; Human Hands; Watching the Detectives; (I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea; Almost Blue; Shabby Doll; I Want You. Encore 1: Brilliant Mistake; Pump It Up; Alison > Purple Rain. Encore 2: Sulfur to Sugarcane; The Crooked Line; The Scarlet Tide.

Keep reading:

Elvis Costello – “Secret, Profane and Sugarcane”

The Miracles – “The Tracks of My Tears”

Solomon Burke’s Sweet Soul Music

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(Above: Roy Orbison performs “(Oh) Pretty Woman” on “Austin City Limits” in 1983.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The musical landscape of television was of a different world when “Austin City Limits” debuted on Public Television 35 years ago. Brief performances on late night talk shows or segments on “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert” were the only options for fans hoping to catch a glimpse of their favorite act.

Baloons and the capital building, trademarks of the Flaming Lips and Austin City Limits.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame celebrates the show that put long-form performances on the air with the new exhibit “Great Music. No Limits. Celebrating 35 Years of Austin City Limits.”

“There were certainly music shows on television before, like Ed Sullivan, ‘Shindig’ or ‘Hullabaloo,’” said Jim Henke, vice president of exhibitions and curatorial affairs for the Rock Hall. “But ‘Austin City Limits’ was the first show where the performers didn’t lip synch and were provided with a platform that extended beyond just a song or two.”

The exhibit includes photographs, setlists, documents and video footage of the show’s greatest moments.

“A big part of the exhibit are the photos from the show. We have 30 or more pictures of artists ranging from B.B. King, Dolly Parton and Elvis Costello to Pearl Jam, R.E.M. and the Dave Matthews Band,” Henke said. “We also have a lot of different documents, including lots of early stuff like the proposal for underwriting the pilot episode and several handwritten memos.”

The memos show the evolution of the show’s title from “River City Country” to “Austin Space” before finally settling on the current title.

The Hag on ACL.

“We also have three setlists from Wilco’s performance where you can see which songs were added and changed before they went on,” Henke said.

“MTV Unplugged,” “Sessions at West 54th Street” and “Soundstage” are but a few of the shows Austin City Limits has inspired during its run. In 2002, the show spun off into the three-day Austin City Limits Music Festival.

“The show started out with Willie Nelson on the first episode then expanded,” Henke said. “If you look at who’s appeared since then it’s been a nice mix of artists.”

Henke pointed out recent episodes with Ben Harper sitting in with Pearl Jam and Mos Def with K’Naan as examples of the show’s continued innovation.

“The producers don’t just book established artists. They’re looking at younger artists as well,” Henke said. “Our video reel has everyone from Ralph Stanley and Bill Monroe to Damian Marley. It’s not just focused on one era or genre. I think this is not only what made the show so innovative, but has given it such longevity.”

For museum hours and ticket and general information, visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Website.

Keep Reading:

Rock Hall Celebrates 50 Years of Motown

George Kalinsky: Painting with Light (Rock Hall photo exhibit)

Rock Hall celebrates the 40th anniversary of Woodstock

(Below: The Polyphonic Spree party on Austin City Limits in 2004.)

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(Above: A snippet of Allen Toussaint’s cover of Paul Simon’s “American Tune” from one of his regular appearances at Joe’s Pub in New York City.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

At his first-ever performance in Kansas City, New Orleans pianist Allen Toussaint transformed the Folly Theater into a place where “mardi gras” was a verb and Fat Tuesday occurred every night.

The soon-to-be 72-year-old songwriter, arranger and producer delivered around 100 minutes of material he wrote for others, recorded himself or wished he had written for a nearly sold-out crowd.

From the first chords of the opening vamp it was obvious that Toussaint and his four-piece band were determined to melt a little of the mounds of snow stacked outside. Thanks to the jumping introduction, the party was already in full swing by the time Toussaint launched into “There’s A Party Going On.”

Although Toussaint’s heart lies in the Big Easy, his influences were all over the map. “Sweet Touch of Love” ended with Toussaint adapting the melody of “An American in Paris” over a modified Bo Diddley beat. The effervescent “Soul Sister” moved between a stately melody and calypso rhythms and felt like the type of number Billy Joel and tried – and failed – to write at least 20 or 30 times.

The most impressive juxtaposition was Toussaint’s classical piano solo during “Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky (From Now On). For several minutes the maestro interspersed snippets of well-known concertos against contemporaries Professor Longhair and Dave Brubeck.

Two songs stemmed from Toussaint’s recent jazz album, “The Bright Mississippi.” The title song, a Thelonious Monk number, was a syncopated throwback to the Dixieland tradition of New Orleans jazz and featured saxman Brian “Breeze” Cayolle on clarinet. It was followed by “St. James Infirmary,” which found the drummer slapping his knees and snapping his fingers to keep time while Toussaint and his barefoot guitarist traded licks.

Toussaint may not be a household name, but the artists he’s worked with are. His songs have been recorded by everyone from British invasion bands like the Yardbirds, Rolling Stones and the Who to soul singers such as O’Jays, Lee Dorsey and the Pointer Sisters, to artists ranging from Jerry Garcia and Iron Butterfly to Warren Zevon and Devo. Toussaint has also recorded with Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello, the Band, Dr. John and the Meters.

The set’s centerpiece was a medley several of Toussaint’s best-known hits, including “A Certain Girl,” “Mother-in-Law,” “Working in a Coal Mine” and “Fortune Teller.” It was followed by his most-recorded number, “Get Out of My Life Woman.”

Between several numbers, Toussaint told stories about working with Ernie K. Doe and Costello, plugged upcoming TV appearances, and recalled his impression of a chocolate commercial set to his song “Sweet Touch of Love.” The stories were entertaining on their own, but the beautiful beds of chords Toussaint created under his monologues made especially scintillating.

The night’s only flaw was a slightly sour mix, which buried Toussaint’s piano and vocals during the opening number. The piano was quickly lifted to its proper place over the drums and guitar, but the vocals remained faint throughout the evening.

After sharing the spirit of Mardi Gras, Toussaint closed his main set by going one step further. Walking along the lip of the stage, he threw out beads and masks and searched for the perfect girth to receive a t-shirt. After a few moments, the band returned and Toussaint delivered a breathtaking, unaccompanied performance of “American Tune.” Toussaint’s experiences during Hurricane Katrina added extra resonance to Paul Simon’s lyrics, and the pin-drop quiet crowd burst into approving applause as the last note faded.

Setlist: There’s A Party Going On, Whatever Happened to Rock and Roll?, Sneaking Sally Through the Alley
Sweet Touch of Love, Who’s Going to Help a Brother Get Further?, Soul Sister, Bright Mississippi, St. James Infirmary, Medley: A Certain Girl/Mother-In-Law/Fortune Teller/Working in a Coal Mine, Get Out of My Life Woman > Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky (From Now On), Mr. Mardi Gras, Southern Nights. Encore: American Tune, Shoorah Shoorah > Fun Time.

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(Above: Ceoltoiri Chluain Tarbh [Clontarf] go on the wren in 2008.)

By Joel Francis

Information on St. Stephen is scarce. Everything known about his life is contained in two chapters in the New Testament’s book of Acts. Stephen was one of several men appointed by the 12 disciples to preach the gospel. A man “full of faith,” Stephen “did great wonders among the people.”

However, the religious leaders in the synagogues at Libertine, Cyrene and Alexandria were not impressed. They falsely accused Stephen of blaspheming against God and Moses, and bribed witness to lie and corroborate the charges. Stephen was found guilty, taken outside the city limits and stoned.

At this point, history ends and religion takes over. The Catholic Church paid tribute to Stephen, Christianity’s first martyr after the crucifixion of Christ, designated Dec. 26, St. Stephen’s Day. On this day, also known the Feast of St. Stephen, families gathered to eat and drink together. Because Christmas Day was celebrated with friends at parties at the time, this day with family was a nice counterpoint.

Centuries later, the Irish further appended the legend with the hunting of wren. At some point during the Feast of St. Stephen, the children from each family would find a wren and chase it until it was captured or died from exhaustion. After “going on the wren,” the children would tie the dead bird to the end of a pole or put it in a cage and parade around town singing.

Each group would stop at homes around the neighborhood, show their bird and collect some money. At the end of the day, the money the town’s children gathered was pooled and used to host a huge city-wide dance.

There are two tales why the wren became the unfortunate victim of the day. In one version, St. Stephen had all but eluded his capture when a singing wren betrayed his hiding place. This account conveniently ignores Stephen’s statement on trial about seeing the heavens open and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. The other explanation is that during the Viking raids on the Emerald Island in the eighth century, wrens betrayed the Irish soldiers’ location and foiled a potential ambush.

With this tradition in mind, Catholic-raised songwriter Elvis Costello teamed with Irish luminary Paddy Maloney and the Chieftains to pen a song depicting one of the most Irish of holidays. Against the backdrop of an Irish reel, Costello paints the picture of family “feeding their faces until they explode and getting drunk in an attempt to hide the awkwardness that comes with not having seen each other since this time last year.

The day’s only relief comes when the nattering, obnoxious children finally go out to murder the wren and the adults are finally “rid of them (rid of them!).”

“St. Stephen’s Day Murders” originally appeared on the Chieftains’ 1991 holiday album “The Bells of Dublin.” The theme of the wren is revisited in the songs “The Arrival of the Wren Boys” and “The Wren in the Furze Dance.” “St. Stephen’s Day Murders” also appears as a bonus track on the Rhino edition of Elvis Costello’s “Mighty Like A Rose.”

Keep reading:

Classic Christmas Carol: “In the Bleak Midwinter”

Classic Christmas Carol: “Greensleeves”

Classic Christmas Carol: “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”

Classic Christmas Carol: “Fairytale of New York”

Classic Christmas Carol: “Jesus Christ”

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(Above: “Fairytale of New York” may be the best modern Christmas song of all time.)

By Joel Francis

There aren’t many Christmas songs set in jail, but dang if songwriter Shane McGowan and the Pogues don’t turn lockdown sunny side up during the four and a half minutes of “Fairytale of New York.”

“Fairytales” opens famously on Christmas Eve in the drunk tank. As an old man sings and mourns his last Christmas, the narrator’s mind drifts to a Christmas Eve with the love of his life.

McGowan paints a vivid picture of that day in the New World with “cars big as bars,” “rivers of gold,” and a wind that “goes right through you.” After exploring the Big Apple together, the pair stumbled into a place where

“Sinatra was swinging,
All the drunks they were singing.
We kissed on a corner,
Then danced through the night.”

Irish composer Fiachra Trench’s string arrangement captures perfectly the hope of the moment and excitement of a new life in a new world. During the subsequent verses, love fades and is replaced by drunkenness and addiction. But even as the couple exchanges insults, they keep returning to that Christmas Eve when the choir sang and the bells rang out.

Guest singer Kirsty MacColl appears as the woman in the story. Her melodic voice is a nice counterpoint to McGowan’s gruff brogue. MacColl’s part was originally written for Pogues bassist Cait O’Riordan. That plan fell through in 1986, when O’Riordan absconded with Elvis Costello, who was producing the band’s second album.

When the group hired Steve Lillywhite to produce their third album, he suggested MacColl, his wife at the time, to sing guide vocals on a demo until the band could find a replacement. McGowan liked her part so much she was asked to sing on the record.

Released in December, 1987, “Fairytale of New York” has become a holiday staple. In 2005 the song was re-released as a single, to benefit “Justice for Kirsty,” a crusade to uncover the truth behind MacColl’s 2000 death in a controversial boating accident.

“Fairytale of New York” has been covered numerous times, but never improved.

Keep reading:

Classic Christmas Carol: “In the Bleak Midwinter”

Classic Christmas Carol: “Greensleeves”

Classic Christmas Carol: “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”

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(Above: Cross Canadian Ragweed show off their new song “51 Pieces.” What’s with the Raiders shirt on an Oakie?)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

The television show “CMT Crossroads” found a niche by pairing seemingly disparate artists like Taylor Swift and Def Leppard or Lucinda Williams and Elvis Costello for a one-hour performance. With their blend of arena-ready country channeled through classic rock radio, Cross Canadian Ragweed could fill a show all by themselves.

The Oklahoma-based quartet preached to a half-full Crossroads Friday night delivering nearly two dozen tracks from across their 12-year career and several songs from their just-released seventh album. Singer and lead guitarist Cody Canada played like a character from the latest edition of “Guitar Hero,” flipping between Eddie Van Halen’s finger-tapping technique, the heavy rhythm riffs inspired by Angus Young and subtle finger-picked solos a la Mark Knopfler.

Although it’s fun and easy, the congregated faithful weren’t playing spot the influence. They were too busy dancing in bliss, rocking to the music, hands raised, hallelujah. Their following is so loyal Canada could toss a lyric to the crowd and get it back twice as loud, but even he was impressed when the boisterous bunch sang along to material released just 10 days ago.

The high points of the two hour set came from opposite ends of the spectrum. “Anywhere But Here” opened like the country cousin of “Panama” and benefited from the extra muscle the band put into the extended reading. When snippets of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” appeared, it was less a cover than an assimilation.

Canada’s three-song solo acoustic set showed off his songwriting and storytelling chops. “Lonely Girl” was inspired by his sister while new number “Bluebonnets” was written for his four-year-old son. The trilogy of acoustic numbers was followed by a three-part medley Canada dubbed “The Trifecta,” which swaggered from rock to blues before ending with another new cut, “Pretty Lady.”

Bass player Jeremy Plato gave Canada a smoke break by handling lead vocals on two songs. His voice was a nice change of pace but too many bass solos – including two in the final three numbers – bogged the energy a bit. Ditto for the drum solo that preceded “Number.”

Ragweed’s set ended with guaranteed crowd pleasers “Carney Man” and “Late Last Night.” For “Time To Move On” Jonathan Tyler, who led the first act on the bill, joined the quartet on guitar. The night ended with a new song that felt old. Although it wasn’t officially released until Sept. 1, the crowd went ballistic for “51 Pieces” based on the opening lines of the story that introduced the number.

Lucero got sandwich billing between opener Jonathan Tyler and Northern Lights and Ragweed. The Memphis-based quartet sounds like the E Street Band via Uncle Tupelo and front man Ben Nichols sounds like Jay Farrar after too many cigarettes and way too much whiskey.

Their one-hour set was heavy on fan requests and included “Kiss the Bottle,””Raising Hell” and new material like “Darken My Door.” Although Lucero weren’t the band most of the crowd came to see, they did a great job of firing up the sizable swarm in front of the stage.

Setlist: Sister, Alabama, Burn Like the Sun, Mexican Sky, Deal, To Find My Love, Hammer Down, 42 Miles, Soul Agent, Anywhere But Here (including Won’t Get Fooled Again), Drag, drum solo, Number, (acoustic set) Let the Rain Fall Down (unsure if this title is correct), Lonely Girl, Bluebonnets, The Trifecta (including Pretty Lady), Carney Man, Time to Move On (with Jonathan Tyler), Late Last Night, (encore) 51 Pieces

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spasc

By Joel Francis

When Elvis Costello picked up an acoustic guitar in the mid-‘80s after two baffling albums full of horns and keyboards, the result was one of the high points in Costello’s already-great discography. Costello teamed with producer T-Bone Burnett for that album, “King of America,” and 23 years later the two are back together for “Secret, Profane and Sugarcane.”

Costello has never quite eclipsed that peak, settling into a pattern of churning out reliable genre exercises in country, jazz, classical and rock and collaborating with Burt Bacharach, the Brodsky Quartet and Allen Toussaint. Burnett, on the other hand, has become the go-to man for Americana/roots recordings, winning a Grammys for his production on Robert Plant and Allisson Krauss’ debut album and the “O Brother Where Art Thou?” soundtrack. The reunion of Costello and Burnett creates an accessible entry point for a public that reaches beyond his usual audience of the core and the curious.

Unfortunately, the magic that sparked “King of America” is absent on “Secret, Profane and Sugarcane.” While Burnett has rounded up an all-star cast of bluegrass musicians, the music feels like a stiff genre exercise. It is almost as if Costello is guesting on his own “Pickin’ On” tribute, or starring in “O Brother Where Art Costello.” Costello’s decision to revisit two songs from his back catalog reinforces this notion. “Complicated Shadows” was a great Johnny Cash-inspired slow-burning rock song in its original incarnation back in 1996. Here, it’s half the length and feels like Costello slapped his old lyrics over a generic bluegrass arrangement.

It neither helps nor hurts the listening experience to know that these songs were culled from an unfinished opera about Hans Christian Anderson, previous albums and leftovers from other projects. With little exception, they are all painted with the same brush and do little to distinguish themselves from the gray wash of an album that is neither offensive nor interesting.

The songs that do stand out are the two co-written by Burnett and Costello. “Sulphur to Sugarcane” is an extended innuendo delivered with a broad poke in the ribs and exaggerated arched eyebrow. It recalls the routines of Dusty and Lefty, the off-color cowboy duo played by Woody Harrelson and John C. Riley in the film “A Prairie Home Companion.”

“The Crooked Line,” however, is a standout in the good way. This next-to-last tune rewards the listener for nearly making it through the album with the harmony vocals of Emmylou Harris. Harris may be the best and most underrated duet singer in music. She consistently works harder on her supporting vocals than most singers invest in their singles. Her voice soars, subtly complimenting the melody, adding a mesmerizing countermelody. Whether on Lyle Lovett’s “Waltz Through the Bottomland” or Bob Dylan’s “Mozambique,” her voice never ceases to inadvertently creep into the spotlight and eventually command full attention.

Drawing on the chemistry she and Costello established in their previous collaboration on his “Delivery Man” album and subsequent tour, Harris doesn’t disappoint on “The Crooked Line.” Like a jazz musician breathing life into a trite pop standard, Harris signing salvages a ho-hum song and arrangement and turns it into something worth repeated listens.

“Secret, Profane and Sugarcane” has been released on Starbuck’s Hear Music label, and it seems a perfect fit for the latte-drinking, NPR-listening caricature scribbled up in political circles. For this audience, Costello’s name means maverick, Burnett’s means quality and the country-folk stylings make it unique, yet comfortable. But fans of Costello, Burnett and bluegrass alike can do much better than this.

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