Elvis Costello & the Imposters at the State Theater
Detroit, May 11, 2007
So they go out on a truncated tour of portions of America—truncated by the metric of the typical 20-odd stops made on one continent, before moving on to another, which fundamentally becomes something of an endless tour, or at least a tour that segues into the next one. They go out not because it is in support of some new music, but because still another packaging of “greatest hits” has been released.
That term really doesn’t apply to the works of Costello, et. al., for the simple reason that “hits” is something of a term that more than intimates the movement of a considerable amount of commerce, and while the cadre of fans, supporters and other interested individuals can cite chapter and verse (after all, he writes the book), the oeuvre isn’t exactly the sort of thing that keeps the data miners at Billboard up late, adjusting figures; surprising, “Veronica” had more chart climbing traction than one might have imagined, and that undoubtedly is due, in no small part, to the aura of Macca.
That there needs to be another packaging of the songs from My Aim Is True, This Year’s Model, etc. is probably not the point (the Girls, Girls, Girls compilation is undoubtedly about as good as you can get). It is often a good thing to see/hear a performer you enjoy/admire. What’s more, it is a good thing for said performers—particularly those whose stratospheric heights are somewhere shy of the arena’s ceiling—as they undoubtedly need the dough.
And while on the subject of commerce, a bit of a digression, one that is related to the show, but not the performance. When the push email from Ticketmaster came including a calendar of forthcoming shows in Detroit, I spotted the event and immediately went on line to buy tickets. There were two prices: $75 and $36.50. Since seeing Costello has been fairly consistently for the past few years an annual event, I decided to opt for the higher price point. And the search for tickets came up empty in that category. I tried it again, especially as the venue, the State Theatre, doesn’t have assigned seats. It doesn’t have many seats. Bar stools, by and large.
So this didn’t make sense to me for a number of reasons, including the facts that (1) during the past few years, the sizes of the crowds at the events I attended at which he and the band performed have been diminishing; (2) while I wasn’t standing on line outside some liquor store or shopping mall all night waiting for the tickets to be released to the public, I’m guessing that when I got the email, the tickets hadn’t been available for a long, long time prior to that. But then it became clear to me: If I was trying to buy the tickets with a Visa Signature card—a card that’s not in my wallet—then I would have been able to get the upper tier (literally, as those who do were on a mezzanine level). Prior to the show, the video screen above the stage showed a short, endlessly looped commercial for the credit card, perhaps rubbing it in to all of us proles on lower level while making those above feel better.
Funny how seeing a concert has so many financial ramifications and implications. Even funnier how it seems that even if you can afford it, there still is some way that some one is going to want to get a bigger piece of your wallet (and there is no need to go into the confiscatory fees that were related to the purchase of the ticket: Doesn’t it seem more than slightly odd that when you’re actually doing the work of inputting the keystrokes—a.k.a., doing work—in order to get tickets, you’re still charged as though that task is being performed by a clerk who is evidently making more than minimum wage?).
On with the show. As was expected, this was a case of he and the band going out and slamming the 2:40ish singles of yore. Bang-bang-bang-bang-bang. One after the other. Sometimes a slight pause between songs in order for him to get another guitar. Sometimes a final note segued right into the opening note of another. Serious music-making. No idle chatter. They came to play, and play they did. If only they were better. Full marks must go to drummer Pete Thomas, who did as solid a job as he probably did 30 years ago. Let’s face it: When you pump it up, there is a whole lot of exercise involved. There was no slack on his part.
The same can’t be said for Costello. To be sure, some of it probably had to do with it being a less-than-acoustically astounding venue, as there was a pervasive muddiness involved, and one suspects that this was not some sort of tribute to The River In Reverse. A few years ago, he seemed as though he wanted to emphasize his guitar playing prowess, taking extended leads and choking the feedback out till not only the guitar was screaming. While they generally played the songs as captured on vinyl (yes, it is the 30th anniversary), which didn’t open opportunities for virtuosity, even when he made departures, it was really rather underwhelming, almost vague.
One of the things that must vex bands when they go out in support of a new recording is that most of the people in the audience are familiar with the older work and are inclined to want to hear that rather than the new material, which the band has an interest in gaining some attention among those who are partisans. But in this case, it was pretty much all about the music from days gone by, which makes it a somewhat odd situation, sort of like those bands from the 70s and 80s who go out on the summer tours (think state fairs and civic festivals) to play the two or three songs for which they are known, except that Costello and Nieve and Thomas have been putting out new music consistently, so this is not some sort of nostalgia act. Yet that, in large part, is what this tour is. And it is all the sadder that the execution was so poor.
But perhaps, maybe, what I was witness to was something that I might have experienced 30 years ago, when the Imposters were still the Attractions, when the glasses were horn-rimmed and the physique was skinny, when the band played in clubs where the beer was as flat as the liquid last night. Perhaps this was truly an authentic rendition of what was, when the band was still rough. Maybe that was the point, to provide an experience of what was. Probably not. But maybe.
On May 1, Hip-O/Universal Music Enterprises released The Best Of Elvis Costello: The First 10 Years and Rock And Roll Music a rock-themed collection of hits, key album tracks, b-sides and previously unreleased rarities. May 1st also saw the digital premiere of Costello’s first 11 original albums, marking the first time they have been available for digital downloads and mobile tones. The albums were also released in their original versions as digipaks with booklets and obie sleeves.