Elvis Costello & the Imposters
With Billy Bob Thornton
DTE Energy Music Theatre, June 7, 2002
The price of fame. I paid it. Willingly. No, not for me. Let’s see, the face value of the ticket was $42.50. Added to that is something called a “Convenience Charge.” I’m not so sure what expediency was involved. After all, I waited in line for the ticket, so it wasn’t like they were doing me any favors on that front. So Ticketmaster conveniently added $6.40 to the cost of the ticket. In addition to which, there are two $3 fees tacked right on for parking at the venue.
That was one aspect of the price in question.
But then there was the opening act. Billy Bob Thornton. When I mentioned to a colleague that he was going to be first up, the reaction was, “The actor?” Un huh. “What’s he going to do—standup?” I think that would have been preferable. But maybe, adequate backup band notwithstanding, what I assumed was a musical act was really standup. He let loose with such between-song patter as saying, “I made a movie here. A Simple Plan. Just across the lake in Wisconsin.” Yes, DTE Energy Music Theatre is in Michigan. And Michigan is separated by Wisconsin by Lake Michigan. But the venue is northwest of Detroit. Which is to say that geography is not his strong suit. Or maybe that was a joke. Or maybe it is a commentary on the Arkansas school system. Here is generally not some place, oh, 350 or more miles away. He played up his redneckness in a manner that would make Jeff Foxworthy cringe (and having to make a Jeff Foxworthy reference makes me cringe—but I would have rather sat through a week of his bad jokes than the 40 or so minutes of Thornton). When pointing out that one of the band members was going to be playing a mandolin on a forgettable song, he said, “When hillbillies made guitars, they stopped short.” And, yes, he made cracks about a car in the front yard on concrete blocks. But not just any car. A DeLorean. And not just any front lawn. That of the late Jim Varney, of “Ernest” fame. He did try to convince the crowd that he was just a regular guy, as he listed many of the jobs that he’d once had in his life, from drill press operator to asphalt layer. Yeah. A regular guy. An Academy Award winner. Married to Angelina Jolie. Very normal. In his tribute to his spooky spouse, “Angelina,” we were treated to such poetry as “We just looked at them and growled” and “What’s come between us—could it be the music or the mystery of love.” I’m guessing that it must be the mystery of love, because his musicianship would be grounds for divorce.
Billy Bob Thornton has joined the ranks of many thespians who have parlayed their fame in one area for a half-assed performance in another. Bruce Willis. Eddie Murphy. Dan Ackroyd. John Travolta. Make no mistake: None of these people would be let near a recording studio or a stage unless they had established themselves in another venue. And I had to pay.
This Year’s Model
I’ve seen Elvis Costello with and w/o the Attractions plenty of times over plenty of years. After his last outing, I was pretty much certain that while he kept exploring new aural landscapes, the level of what I had expected from him at a live performance exceeded, perhaps, what any touring musician would reasonably be expected to do. But who among us is reasonable when we go to see favorite performers? It was smilingly surprising to hear “Watching the Detectives” with a Caribbean syncopation for the first time. The second had charm. The third left me wishing for the original. I figured that the last time I saw Costello would be the last time. But with summer coming on with the speed of a Trabant with a gummed-up carb, with the ability to hear live music outdoors, and with what I perceive as pretty much a blank slate so far as the possibilities vis-à-vis performers who qualify for the Ticketmaster tariff, off we were to see Costello and the Imposters (which is essentially the Attractions, with Bruce Thomas replaced on bass by Davey Faragher). After performing for more than 20 years, they were at the top of their game during this performance.
Although Costello isn’t the skinny kid with Buddy Holly hair and horn rims anymore, striking a pose on the cover of My Aim is True, he is now at least exhibiting an aggressiveness that has long been absent. This was not a “God Give Me Strength” performance; Burt Bacharach was not in the wings. The set blended cuts from When I Was Cruel with a select sampling from, primarily, the first three albums; it made me realize how “Blood and Chocolate,” which he did perform, was pretty much the end of the single-hit style of Costello (although arguments could be made that later tunes like “Sulky Girl” would fit in that mix). Costello, having progressed the capabilities of his pipes through work with the likes of Bacharach and Anne Sofie Von Otter, has evidently concentrated on his guitar playing. Once secondary to his vocals, it is now as much a part of his work. In fact, the number of instrument changes during the show kept a roadie exceedingly busy.
The comparative few who paid to see the show got their money’s worth. Which leads me to wonder about all of the empty seats and the essentially bare lawn. While it could be that for many people Costello is past his sell-by date, it was evident that he attracted a demographic that was exceedingly wide, from people who look like they were from central casting for the Scooby Doo movie (who danced through the entire set) to those who look like they could be Costello’s great aunts and uncles. Although the weather in Detroit has been generally changeable—changing from bad and back again—I don’t think that meteorological issues are to blame. Perhaps that it is becoming a bit too much to pay out the kind of money to see shows unless you’re really committed to it. It may be that we have entered a period where Big Business has overreached into our pockets, and it won’t surprise me that we’ll be hearing reports at the end of this summer how the take from concerts is at an all-time low.