It was time, and long past if you ask me, for a Summerfest Warm Up. Long past due, i’d say. And since it was fricking cold and rainy, we owed it to ourselves to find a way to warm up and look forward to sunny days.
So we went to see Elvis Costello. What else could we do? Taking the stage, dressed very dapper in a charcoal suit set off by beatle boots with a lime green stripe as well as a lime green fedora, he was dressed for spring.
He’s never been one to repeat himself and likes to mix things up, so he’s been on a solo tour. Or, as he said when he moved from the center mike to a seat on stage left “Introducing my very special guest … me!” Most tours, he rarely speaks preferring to play nearly non-stop but last night, he revealed a warm and mordant wit, along with some great stories about his life, particularly his father and grandfather. It was almost a Storytellers gig, but with more music.
He also joked about hating to visit Milwaukee ‘because it always seemed to be 27 THOUSAND degrees below zero” until he discovered that we even had a summer here. Who knew, right?
Even solo, he is such an energized and compelling performer. His voice was superb, ‘from a whisper to a scream’ as the song goes.
He started by 8 PM and played until well after 10, clocking 28 songs ranging from his first album to his latest collaboration with the Roots, and several covers and standards; mostly on guitar. He had a tasty array of pedals, and used a digital echo to provide rhythm guitar on songs like Watching the Detectives while he played a slashing aggressive lead. During one of his recent songs, “Jimmie Standing In The Rain” he walked in front of the mike stand and using just that distinctive voice and the resonant acoustics of a gorgeous theater built when there was no such thing as electronic amplification, added a couple of lines from “Brother Can You Spare a Dime” as a powerful coda. We had seen him do this before when he’s played this theater.
Elvis is one of my favorite artists, has been since I saw him play “Radio, Radio” on Saturday Night Live. In fact, he played an early version of that song when it was called “Radio Soul”, and which was more about the power of music on the radio and far less caustic than the recorded version.
If you have watched his show Spectacle (and if you haven’t you owe it to yourself to do so ASAP), you know that he is a voracious student of music of all kinds, and the joy he felt at sharing a stage and songs with peers and heroes was remarkably compelling. When he was an angry young skinny kid who seemed to go out of his way to be abrasive and off-putting, who could have foreseen his current status as Elder Statesman of New Wave and de-facto musical archivist for the new century?
He told a short story about being asked to fill in for Lana Del Rey on Letterman a couple of days prior, which seemed to strike his funny bone. And so he played a song that he debuted on that show, “The Last Year Of My Youth” which is about living your own life on your own terms, no matter what others might say. It’s not finished, but it looks to be a winner.
The night was filled with humor and songs, old and new; Declan was happy to see us, and we him and my! Didn’t we have a wonderful time? The old songs sounded new, and the new songs sounded old and he recast many of them so it took a few bars or the first few words to be able to identify them, and damn if that didn’t make everything sound new and everyone feel young again.
And, as is his way and his tradition, he finished the second batch of encores with a rousing loud-guitar version of “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding?, a song that we need even more today than we did when Nick Lowe wrote it. A song that never fails to make me weep in sadness and hope.
I will close out with one of my favorite less-well-known songs of his, a cheerful sounding song about the Other Side Of Summer:
As ever, thank you Elvis. Now, if the rain will let up we can go into Festival Season with no reservations.
And in that vein, Fest-Blog Favorites Something To Do will be playing something called the Evinrude Block Party on Saturday the 14th, at 3rd and Juneau. We are there, especially in case they don’t make the annual Summerfest booking. See you there, right?