At the very end of Elvis Costello and the Roots’ show at Brooklyn Bowl on Monday night, ?uestlove thanked the crowd for supporting the “strange experiment” that is their just-released collaborative album, Wise Up Ghost. What’s actually most surprising about that experiment is that it actually works.
On paper, the marriage of Costello’s singer-songwritery, professorial erudition and the Roots’ greasy grooves seems like a well-intended but painfully incongruous marriage. But Costello and ?uestlove are kindred spirits, two genius-level music geeks who not only have a deep knowledge of and appreciation for multiple genres of music, they’re both restless musicians with Olympian work ethics who revel in challenging themselves. Over his 35-odd-year career, Costello has worked with everyone from Tony Bennett to Bajofondo, from Brian Eno to Burt Bacharach, from Billie Joe Armstrong to the Brodsky String Quartet (and those are just the “B”s); the Roots have backed a staggeringly diverse collection of performers nearly every weeknight during their four years as the house band on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.
On the album and in this apparently one-off show (apart from two appearances on Fallon this week), the unlikely alliance — the ?uestello Show, if you will — finds its main common ground in the ’60s and ’70s soul and funk that both acts often reference in their music: Motown, Stax, the Meters, Philly Soul. And rather than using his more familiar reedy singing voice, Costello inhabits a smoky lower register that often slips into a sinewy sneer, and occasionally a polysyllabic chant that’s not worlds away from rapping. The most dramatic example of the latter comes in “Stick Your Tongue Out,” a supple reinvention of Costello’s 30-year-old anti-Thatcherite broadside “Pills and Soap” that meshes that song’s bitter lyrics with a sensuous midtempo groove, making for some deliciously cognitive dissonance. At different points in the set, Marisol Hernandez (of La Santa Cecilia) and Diane Birch harmonized with him, bringing some welcome diversity to the vocal palette.
The group did not phone this gig in: On Monday afternoon Twitter hummed with reports about unnamed chestnuts the group was banging into shape during a rigorous rehearsal, and the evening’s 16-song set was tight and supple, leaning heavily on the album but also featuring several Costello hits (“Watching the Detectives,” “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea” and “Pump It Up”), deep cuts (“Shabby Doll,” “Spooky Girlfriend,” an extended “I Want You”), and two startling covers: “Ghost Town,” the 1981 swan-song from the Specials, the legendary British ska band whose debut LP was Costello’s first major outside production job; and John Lennon’s “I Found Out,” which closed the night on a dark but raucous note.
Through it all, Costello coaxed funky chords and howling feedback out of his vintage Fender Jazzmaster — the one with his name written in abalone across the fretboard — trading spiky licks with guitarist Captain Kirk Douglas. And the Roots were the Roots, which is to say just about the greatest band in the entire world. As they’ve proven time and time again on Fallon, the group has the ability unobtrusively to take an artist out of his or her element, get them out of their own way, enhance strengths the performer may not have realized they had — and have so much fun doing it they forget their usual, more serious selves. And by taking the time to let this collaboration marinate, with Wise Up Ghost the Roots have helped Costello sound more vital than he has in years.