Elvis Costello @ The Chicago Theatre (Concert Review)

For his Imperial Bedroom & Other Chambers tour, Elvis Costello promised to revisit selections from his 1982 album of the same name, as well as “the songs that led in and out of that velvet-trimmed playhouse.” With an almost 40-year deep catalog to pull from, Costello’s Saturday night show at The Chicago Theatre proved to be an eclectic and dazzling trip through some of his deep album cuts, big hits, and new, unreleased gems.

Impeccably backed by his “second” band The Imposters (organist Steve Nieve, drummer Pete Thomas, and bassist Davey Faragher), Costello played very few songs as they were originally recorded, preferring instead to have as much fun with his songs as he wanted. With his sly, wink-and-a-nod frontman face on in full force, Costello led his band – as well as two incredibly soulful background singers (Kitten Kuroi and Yahzarah) – through a 2 hour and 45 minute, 30-song, double encore set that was anchored by almost the entirety of Imperial Bedroom. (For those keeping score at home, “Little Savage” and “Boy with a Problem” were the only missing cuts from the album’s original tracklisting).   

It’s no surprise that The Imposters were able to keep up with Costello’s twisting set list and his playful reinterpretations, as Nieve and Thomas were a part of Costello’s original band The Attractions, who recorded not only recorded Imperial Bedroom but have played with Costello since his second album, This Year’s Model. Faragher, who joined Costello’s band in 2001, not only handled Costello’s earlier material with energetic expertise, but also contributed some beautiful background vocals and created the stunning vocal arrangements for Kitten Kuroi and Yahzarah.

After kicking the show off with a soulful romp through “The Town Where Time Stood Still,” Costello greeted the crowd - “Welcome to the Imperial Bedroom! We’ve decorated the place up nice for you!” – and gestured to the giant video screen behind them that shuffled through Costello’s album and singles artwork that had been reworked to incorporate elements of the artwork from Imperial Bedroom. It was an incredibly cool touch that added an additional element of surprise and playfulness throughout the entirety of the show.

Song after song, Costello and his band showed an unbelievable versatility in the genres and moods they invoked. “Lipstick Vogue,” “Pump It Up,” and “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” were played with a relentless punk fury, while “Shot With His Own Gun,” “Almost Blue,” and “This House Is Empty Now” made the room feel like a late-night hotel bar. “Tears Before Bedtime” and “The Long Honeymoon” were marked by a slow-burn slink and some incendiary guitar solos from Costello lifted “Shabby Doll” and “Pidgen English“ to intense heights. One of the night’s most memorable moments came when Costello brought his background singers to the front of the stage and the three of them sang a solo electric version of “Alison” all around one microphone. Show-stopper “Watching the Detectives” – with Costello awash in a green spotlight and the video screen cycling through a variety of film noir b-movie posters – made for an unforgettable crowd-engaging favorite as well.

After the first full-band encore – an excited “Town Cryer” and a straight-ahead take on “Everyday I Write the Book” – Costello came back out by himself to start the second encore. Decked out in a purple top hat and carrying a snazzy scepter, Costello asked, “Are you waiting for me to announce my candidacy?” He then launched into a trio of new politically minded songs from behind the piano. Written for an upcoming stage musical title A Face in the Crowd, the three new songs – “Blood & Hot Sauce,” “Face in the Crowd,” and “American Mirror” – built upon each other thematically, lyrically, and musically; with Costello playing the first by himself, the second with Nieve added on organ, and the third with his full band and singers. After the batch of unreleased newcomers, Costello closed the night out with two of his most raucous fan favorites, “Pump It Up” and “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” to uproarious approval.

While tours that focus on revisiting previous albums has been a popular move in the last decade for most performers, not many have been able to do it with as much ferocity and vitality as Costello. By playing his old songs with renewed energy and fresh musical approaches, as well as adding in brand new songs that haven’t made their way to an album yet, Costello has managed to bring everything to the forefront, making his catalog feel every bit as dangerous and invigorating as when he first burst onto the scene in the late ‘70s.

Interview with Matthew Caws (Nada Surf)

Ahead of the release of their stunning new live album Peaceful Ghosts, we chatted with Matthew Caws of Nada Surf for our newest NoiseTrade One-on-One. Read on as Caws opens up about how the two unique shows captured on Peaceful Ghosts came to be, what the process of playing a rock show backed by an orchestra is like, and what some of his own favorite rock-meets-symphony moments are as a fan.
  
NoiseTrade: Your brand new live album Peaceful Ghosts captures the band over two nights backed by the Babelsberg Film Orchestra and the FM4 Radio Symphony Orchestra. What sparked this surprising-yet-mesmerizing partnership? 

Matthew Caws: It came as a total surprise to us! Apparently the Vienna radio station FM4 and the Vienna Radio Symphony, who share a building, have a joint venture every year where they ask one rock or pop act to put on a concert with the orchestra in a beautiful theater downstairs, which the station simulcasts. 

This year they asked us. That was the good news. The bad (or not great) news was that the question came in right as I was in the home stretch of finishing our latest record, You Know Who You Are. But as luck would have it, the band who had done it the year before was Calexico. Our friend and sometimes extra touring member Martin Wenk is in Calexico and has a wonderful understanding of arrangements, along with an intimate knowledge of our songs. We asked him if he would produce the project and we're very glad that he agreed. 

NT: How did the collaboration process work between the band and the orchestra for the two shows? 

Caws: Martin hired the same composer who had written the Calexico arrangements, Max Knoth, from Hamburg. Martin made up a list of songs that he felt would work well with an orchestra, showed it to us, and after just a couple of substitutions he gave the final list to Max. 

During the couple of months that Max was composing, Martin visited him a few times to get a feel for what was coming. He must have been happy with what he was hearing because as far as I know he didn't have to steer the project. Max has a wonderful style, very filmic, which seems to manage to both support the songs and challenge them. What I mean by that is the additional melody and movement felt neither totally safe (i.e. just following the chords that are already there) nor destructive. Rather than obscuring or transforming the songs, these arrangements seem to expand them and give them more and brighter life. 

We heard synthesized versions of the arrangements, which was very useful because it gave us an opportunity to get used to them before the performance. The day before the concert, we spent a couple of hours playing alone as the conductor watched us to see, understand, and interact with how different our live style is from the records. We had to make some adjustments. Generally speaking, we play our fast songs faster than we do on record and, conversely, our slow songs slower. We were also learning to follow the conductor's hands, which was an interesting learning experience. My impression was that classical time is more about a speed limit (we were to stay just a little behind what he was expressing) and so much can be read from the conductor's face. 

After those two hours, the orchestra arrived and we spent three hours going over most of the material. There was a lot of discussion of beginnings and endings. We were so excited to meet them and they seemed to really enjoy the experience. In terms of working together, we were both really working with the conductor, letting him figure out how to fuse our two groups (of drastically different size!) 
and styles.

  

NT: From a songwriting perspective, how rewarding is it to hear your songs expounded upon in this manner? Were there ever any moments of creative tension with the orchestral direction? 

Caws: Goodness, it's very rewarding. Even just hearing the synthesized versions was a thrill because again, as I said, Max really did so much more than just increase the instrumentation. He managed to, for lack of a better way of putting it, add more heart. Standing onstage with the orchestra doubled that thrill. it was so rich and so loud. I've used the word "filmic" already to describe the arrangements, but that's really it. We felt like we were standing on a big imagined plain, with a James Bond feeling on one end, and a Walt Disney feeling on the other, with new expression all around us. 

The only creative tension was getting used to the arrangements, which was not always easy at first. If it had all been easy, the rewards might not have been as great. The example that sticks out are the bluesy and bending swells near the beginning of "Animal." I disliked them right away, but that only lasted about three listens. I stuck with them and ended up loving them. By the time of the performance, I couldn't have imagined the arrangement without them. 

NT: Having released the explosive Live at the Neptune Theatre 3xLP release last year, how do you feel that this album stands out differently as a sonic snapshot of the band’s live abilities?

Caws: It's really a whole different picture, mostly because it doesn't represent our live abilities. Well, you know what I mean. It represents our ability to play with 50 additional musicians! So I guess that's exactly it, your question really contains the whole reason we're happy it's coming out. It's so different. It's only "explosive" in very small moments - for example, at the end of "The Fox" and some flourishes in "Believe You're Mine." In general though, it has more contained energy, still a lot of momentum and power, but more barge than speedboat. Of course, it's much prettier than we manage to be on our own. 

NT: Finally, do you have any favorite rock-meets-symphony songs or albums that you really enjoy from a fan’s perspective that our readers should check out? 

Caws: One of my favorite strings-meets-rock moments is "Cybele's Reverie" by Stereolab. The strings on that song are likely a mellotron, a wonderful instrument that plays tapes of real instruments being played, which results in reality plus a lovely decay. I've just been listening to the new Okervill River album, Away, which has some very lovely subtle instrumentation, often sounding like a small orchestra. The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds really stands out as one the most wonderfully orchestrated records of all time. Ah, but that wasn't your question! You said symphony. I'm sure there's a lot out there, but I haven't listened to much rock music with an orchestra this size. I was lucky enough to be a guest vocalist on a couple of songs in one of the "Big Star's Third" concerts. This one was at Bumbershoot and Big Star was accompanied by the Seattle Rock Orchestra. That was really tremendous. If you have the chance to see one of those shows, definitely take it. 

As for these songs, now that the arrangements have been written out, we're hoping to do it again! 

How Elvis Costello Outlined His Future with 'Almost Blue' (Rolling Stone)

(This article originally appeared on Rolling Stone. Click on the picture for the full article.)

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