‘Transferring Very Quick However In One Place’
Elvis Costello, Night Four: “Not the last act of this story”
Elvis Costello will perform over 200 songs from his 600+ song book over ten nights from February 9th to 22nd at the Gramercy Theater in New York. Costello superfan (and comedian) Connor Ratliff brings us the highlights from each night of the historic run. Check out his coverage of Night One, Night Two, Night Three, Night Four, Night Five and Night Six here.
Night Seven was the second (and final) Friday night show of Elvis Costello’s 10-night run at New York’s Gramercy Theater, and our intrepid performer (and his keyboard assassin Steve Nieve) delved even deeper into his songbook, leaving an adoring and appreciative audience. For the first time in this concert series, we started the evening with fewer shows than we have behind us, but that doesn’t mean that there was a lack of surprises and musical escapades that evening.
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Admittedly, this was the show I had my eye on from the start, thanks to the pre-announced inclusion of my personal favorite Elvis Costello song: “My dark life.”
On disc it’s a six and a half minute epic produced by Brian Eno for a now obscure X files Tribute CD from 1996, Songs in the key of X. It’s clearly a song Costello is proud of, having included it in his Warner Bros-era “Best of” collection. Extreme honeyas well as the accompanying soundtrack to his memoirs, Unfaithful Music & Vanishing Ink. Greil Marcus once written about it in detail, and said: “The song sucks you in and then loses you so quickly that maybe it’s not describing an incident but a whole life.” It’s like a miasma card.” Bono was another admirer, saying, “That’s the damn shit. It sounds like lounge music from Venus.”
Costello performed “My Dark Life” only once, in a concert in San Francisco in 1996, and that performance was a limited edition release Costello & Snow box set which sold out almost immediately. If you listen closely to this recording, when he gets to the line about the town of “Peculiar, Missouri,” you can hear a brief roar from the audience, emanating from my friend Jeff Falzone, who was the person who brought me along Costello made music known back in high school. (We both grew up in Missouri, a state now ruled by some of the most twisted MAGA politicians in the country; this momentous song feels somehow prescient that it was dropped amid the song’s many intriguing and ominous details .)
The story goes on
The song has since appeared in concerts on a number of occasions. In 2003, Costello toured with The Imposters and “My Dark Life” reappeared in the setlists. I missed it by two shows both ways before and after seeing them at Central Park Summerstage. examination The Elvis Costello Wiki (where vast amounts of data are stored for easy reference), I see that he has performed the song in concert on 14 previous occasions. I’m lucky to have witnessed the 15th.
With re-recorded beats and loops and other electronic doo-dads recently created with Costello’s producer Sebastian Krys in anticipation of these shows, tonight Elvis and Steve took a journey to a moody haunted place and stretched the song to over 8 minutes. I have no idea how many people in the crowd were as mesmerized by this as I was, nor how excited to hear it. I have to imagine that it’s not the easiest song to experience in such a context for the first time, but then again, these shows weren’t designed for the unadventurous.
Costello’s post-song explanation of its origins — inspired by a trip to Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union “with a bunch of tourists to see some stolen paintings” — was as twisted and discursive as the song itself, ranging from geopolitical analysis to to his fond memories of working with Eno for a single day in the studio. I’d like to think that at least a few people who aren’t familiar with the song or haven’t heard it in a while are now looking for it wherever they can as well on-line or deep in their record collection.
Oh, and by the way, he played 21 other songs too, did I mention that?
The show began with the original 1981’s Costello and Nieve banger, “Shot With His Own Gun.” Trustfollowed by “Still” from the happier second half of 2003 North, and then the 1991s shocker Harpies Bizarre Mighty like a roseI immediately tapped out from trying to identify a theme for the evening (and when one was mentioned, I missed it). -Drop demonstrations of his talent throughout the night.
Emotional ballads dominated the evening, from heartthrobs like “When It Sings” and “Still Too Soon To Know” to the Bacharach/Costello classic “This House Is Empty Now”.
Perhaps the most memorable was the live premiere of “The Whirlwind,” a song released in 2020 Hey dial originally written for his stage musical in development by A face in the crowd (Eight more songs previewed on Night Four to great effect). “I may be lies/ This may be true/ You think you know me/ Maybe you do” feels like the kind of deceptively simple-seeming lyric Costello does better than anyone, in this case paired with a melody that somehow manages to feel defiant and vulnerable at the same time.
Tonight three more songs were presented by IbMePdErRoIoAmL – “Shabby Doll”, “You Little Fool” and “Town Cryer” – and Costello recalled recording that album with co-producer Geoff Emerick, the Beatles’ sound engineer revolver, Sergeant Pepper And abbey roadparticularly the time when Sir George Martin came to visit from an adjoining studio and offered his thoughts on Steve Nieves’ orchestrations and barely looked up to say hello when Ringo Starr entered the room as well.
Costello also spoke about writing “The Comedians” for Roy Orbison and his nerve-racking experience playing rhythm guitar for the singer’s all-star cast black and white night TV special before he once again speaks wholeheartedly about Burt Bacharach and reminisces about the “beautiful” recording session for 2018 look now where legendary perfectionist The Imposters put it through its paces.
The final song segment of the evening, beginning with the unexpected (and triumphant) piano-and-voice rendition of “Pretty Words,” was as unpredictable as having Costello’s entire discography shuffled, loop-driven, almost spoken Word “When I Was Cruel No. 2” leads into the throbbing pop ballad “Poor Napoleon”. Blood & Chocolate and then dodge into the emotional chainsaw “In Another Room” – contender for the saddest song of the whole night, if not all seven. Each of these songs feels like a left turn from the previous one. “I’ve completely lost my mind!” Costello joked at the front of the show, and there are moments when I feel almost overwhelmed by the range of emotions so many different songs evoke in a row. It’s a roller coaster.
No surprise guests tonight, and yet Elvis and Steve managed to serve up another helping of “Peace, Love & Understanding” that sounded different than the version they did last night.
I’ve never noticed this before, but in addition to the pre-show house music, which is all Bacharach, every night when the show is over, the lights come on and “What The World Needs Now” starts playing out of the speakers . It feels celebratory every time.
Upon entering the venue for each of these shows, viewers will be handed postcards detailing the 10 songs per show that were announced in advance. On the occasions that Costello has jumped in and played a song that was scheduled for a later night, these postcards contained notes with the titles that will take their place, using the language of the theater program inserts, the understudy on Broadway announced, “In tonight’s performance, the role of The Scarlet Tide will be played by Oliver’s Army (2023).” There were three such replacements tonight, including one song that wasn’t even announced in advance that was bumped: “The Man You Love To Hate” was replaced with “Party Girl.” It remains to be seen if the song is out The boy named If will appear on one of the remaining evenings…
Costello gets a lot of laughs throughout the evening, both during and between songs. My favorite tonight might have been his finger-wagging during “Pretty Words,” when he seemed to admonish the audience with the line, “You don’t know what you’ve got!”
I got three more songs off my wish list tonight – “Harpies Bizarre”, “My Most Beautiful Mistake” and “Pretty Words” – bringing my total to 13! I’m confident I can make it to 15 by the end of the run, but I’m wondering how close I’ll get to 20?
Another song I’ve never heard him sing in concert (and would have been on my wish list had I thought about it longer) was the beautiful “No Wonder” from Anne Sofie Von Otter’s album of 2001 For the stars. Once he was done playing, Costello started talking enthusiastically about attending ABBA trips Virtual concert experience in London and said, “Honestly, one of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen in my life… I felt like we were in a spaceship and going to another planet that only had ABBA.”
This is the large floor mat (not for sale) halfway up the stairs to the merch table (or halfway up depending on your vantage point). It was entered by many concert-goers and perhaps even by Costello himself. I wonder where this will end when all is said and done. I’m sure someone will complain.
Saturday night is another free night so the boys will return on Sunday/Monday for more musical hijinx and happy dealings, and after that we’re only left with Wednesday for the grand finale.
Speaking of which, I just looked up the song “Wednesday Week” and it appears to have only been played once in a concert, in 1981. I’m not predicting it will be played next Wednesday – only a fool would make a prediction like that – me just saying that if this song ever finds its way back onto the setlist, next week is the absolute best shot.
The merchandise stand
Friday February 17th – Elvis Costello with Steve Nieve – Night Seven
“Shot with his own gun”
“When It Sings”
“My Dark Life”
“You little fool”
“My Best Mistake”
“Too early to know”
“Don’t look now”
“This house is empty now”
“When I Was Cruel #2”
“In Another Room”
“(What’s so funny about) peace, love and understanding?”
Connor Ratliff is an actor/comedian from New York City. He is the creator of the critically acclaimed podcast, dead eyes. You may have seen him play Chester in several seasons of The wonderful Mrs. Maisel.
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Elvis Costello, Night Four: ‘Not The Last Act Of This Story’ featured first on SPIN.