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Elvis Costello LIVE: Not very far from soul food to sugar cane

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot
Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot
Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot
Video Credit: YouTube

MUSIC REVIEW (WITH VIDEO) : Elvis Costello & the Sugarcanes are tight, clever, exquisitely harmonic. And boy can they swing. If you liked Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions, you’ll love this — fiddle, dobro, mandolin, standup bass, accordian, the masterful Jim Lauderdale on acoustic guitar and harmonies, and Declan Patrick MacManus himself, in full voice.

Countless acts have tried bringing this expansive American folk music to the masses, with varying degrees of success — Springsteen, Ry Cooder and Allison Kraus, among them. Ironic that an Englishman might be the one with the best shot, as the bluegrass-based U.S. band of hired guns continues touring behind Elvis the Eclectic in support of last spring‘s “Secret, Profane and Sugarcane” album.

Greasing an usher’s palm got me front row, which was a blast. And for those interested: The 70-year-old, ornately over-the-top United Palace Theatre beats the Beacon in many ways, including accessibility — corner of B’way & 175th St., a 5-minute walk from the GWB.

I took it to the bridge on foot this beautiful night, and was rewarded with magnificent reworkings of “Blame It on Cain,” “New Amsterdam,” “Brilliant Mistake,” “(WSF About) PL&U,” “Every Day I Write the Book“ & a tear-inducing version of George Jones’ “A Good Year for the Roses” during the two-hour show.

Other covers weren’t only surprising but clever: Keith Richards’ “Happy,” for one. Jones’ jaunty “The Race is On.“ And Bing Crosby’s (yes, der Bingle’s) “Changing Partners.“ Folks seemed to like the Dead‘s “Friend of the Devil.”

And although it technically was a sit-down show, Elvis brought the crowd to its feet time after time — and even had ‘em howling and stomping to the lusty “Sulphur to Sugarcane” (although he inexplicably dropped the reference to Ypsilanti).

It was the stuff of old-time revival, with Elvis as the preacher.

“I think I may be in possess of the holy ghost tonight,” he said, raising his right hand on the gilded stage and scanning the one-time movie house — now operated by an evangelical church that picks up needed cash by renting the space out for rock and roll shows.

I heard mutterings on the way out from those who’d have preferred rock and roll. Thing is, if  you’ve seen Elvis with the Attractions (aka Imposters), it can be a delightful treat to hear a group of skilled musicians performing, in exact timing, a style of American music that goes back decades before any of us were born.

Elvis even described the music as rock-and-roll “the way it was in 1921.” And in case anyone missed the irony: He opened with Junior Parker’s “Mystery Train,” one of Elvis Presley’s first hits.

But Elvis II just as quickly sent nearly 3,000 fans into dead silence with a dead-on “Alison,” as the Sugarcanes deftly applied the softest shadings. One of the sweetest surprises was the transformation of “…Red Shoes” into a waltz.

Throughout his career, Elvis has created new frames for his work, not all of them worth considering, from string quartet music to his duets with Burt Bacharach.

This time, it’s rock and roll, Jellyroll and Grand Ole Opry layered into one.

Costello is incredibly comfortable with the foggy moutain boys, an agile and flexible troupe whose enjoyment of the evening was spread across their faces.

One of the greatest talents of our generaton, Elvis has pipes that have never sounded stronger or clearer. The wordplay, as always, rivals the double-entendre sex talk of Don “Sugarcane” Harris, Sonny Boy Williamson, Bessie Smith and the nasty master himself, blues legend Robert Johnson.

Trust me: It’s a hell of a lot of fun.


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