At his Feb. 26 concert with his band The Imposters at the Wellmont Theater in Montclair, Elvis Costello shared some memories of the last time he played there, in 2011. At that time, he said, “I kind of sort of thought maybe I wouldn’t record any more records. And then I decided I would record, like, hundreds of records.”
Always prolific, Costello, who is now 68, has, indeed, continued to pump music out, releasing four albums and three EPs over the past 12 years, as well as contributing material to various other projects. And that doesn’t count a new musical, “A Face in the Crowd,” that he has been working on, but has not yet received a full stage production or had its music released in any form.
Costello played four songs from the musical at The Wellmont, including two that could be seen as representing the show’s two musical extremes.
The catchy, funny “Vitajex,” on which Costello accompanied himself on ukulele, took the form of a radio ad for some kind of snake oil for which Costello made extravagant claims (“This will clean your body and improve your mind/Help you take the girls out more than one at a time,” he sang). A novelty song, of all things, by an artist who has never before shown much of an interest in them.
Meanwhile, the musical’s title song, on which Costello played piano, was a big, melodramatic ballad, featuring show-stopping vocals by actor (and Montclair resident) Patrick Wilson (see video below). One imagines this song will be the musical’s climactic number, though we’ll have to wait and see.
Costello spent much of February performing 10 shows at the Gramercy Theatre in New York, with very few songs repeated in the course of the run. He also performed at Ovation Hall at the Ocean Casino Resort in Atlantic City on Feb. 25. (Costello deadpanned in Montclair, “Somebody said, ‘Welcome to Jersey.’ We were in Atlantic City last night, so we know all about Jersey.”) Sticking to a strategy similar to that of the Gramercy run, Costello performed 12 songs in Montclair that weren’t in the Atlantic City show; that kind of variety is very rare for a classic-rock artist whose career dates back to the ’70s.
Costello seemed like he was having a grand time roaming all over his catalog, telling long, sometimes rambling (and sometimes admittedly semi-fictional) stories between songs, playfully bantering with audience members, and even encouraging people to clap and sing along, like any other showbiz showman would.
“When I first came over here (to the United States), I was known as Mr. Angry, Mr. Revenge and Guilt — poor boy,” the now-seemingly-content Costello said before performing “When I Was Cruel No. 2” (see video below). Still, though he may no longer be an angry young man, there was plenty of angst in some of the recent songs he performed, including the anti-media screed “Hetty O’Hara Confidential” and the thorny love song “Magnificent Hurt.”
This show’s stylistic pendulum swung back and forth many times from tight, punchy rock (“Mystery Dance,” “This Year’s Girl”) to elegant, emotionally wrenching ballads (“Either Side of the Same Town,” “The Comedians”). The stately “Shot With His Own Gun” (see video below) placed the spotlight squarely on Steve Nieve’s brilliantly florid piano playing. (“I put up the walls, he paints the Sistine Chapel,” Costello said).
Costello threw many of his signature songs into the mix, including “Watching the Detectives” and “Alison” (with guitarist Charlie Sexton, who joined the Imposters for the entire evening, handling the introductory riff that was played on the studio version by John McFee and that Costello said he was never able to play himself). And he closed with two songs of anthemic power: “Pump It Up” and his roaring adaptation of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.”
But he rarely delivered the songs exactly as they were in their original form, playing around with his vocal phrasing or the musical arrangement.
And of course, he couldn’t let a visit to New Jersey go by without at least a mention of his friend Bruce Springsteen, with whom he has a long history.
“You know, when I was a kid, I listened to the radio a lot,” he said before performing “Radio Radio.” “And I also listened to records. I learned about everything I know, from records. And I heard this singer coming right out of New Jersey in the early ’70s. I thought, he sounds like he’s got the right idea. He’s singing about girls and dresses and big cars and everything we didn’t have in England. So I wrote this here song.”
Here is the show’s setlist and, below it, some videos:
“This Year’s Girl”
“Either Side of the Same Town”
“Hetty O’Hara Confidential”
“I Don’t Want Your Lyndon Johnson”
“When I Was Cruel No. 2”
“Watching the Detectives”
“Shot With His Own Gun”
“Big Stars Have Tumbled”
“Jimmie Standing in the Rain”
“Blood & Hot Sauce”
“A Face in the Crowd” (with Patrick Wilson)
“The Man You Love to Hate”
“(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea”
“Pump It Up”
“(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding”
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