Elvis Costello is performing 200+ songs from his 600+ songbook over 10 nights at the Gramercy Theater in New York from Feb. 9-22. Costello superfan (and comedian) Connor Ratliff is bringing us the highlights from every night of the historic run. Catch up on his reports from Night One, Night Two, Night Three, Night Four, and Night Five here.
Tonight’s show began with Elvis still in the wings and longtime collaborator Steve Nieve dramatically playing the piano intro to “Accidents Will Happen,” which many longtime fans first heard on 1979’s Live at Hollywood High EP. It was immediately clear that Night Six of Costello’s 10-night stand at New York’s Gramercy Theatre had shifted into a new phase.
These two performers have been musical accomplices for nearly 46 years, since young Steve Nason auditioned to be part of Costello’s band, the Attractions, adding piano and keyboard overdubs to the classic single “Watching the Detectives” before the band even made its live debut.
After an intense first decade of recording and touring, Elvis & the Attractions broke up and (mostly) went their separate ways, only to briefly reunite for 1994’s Brutal Youth and split up again shortly after 1996’s All This Useless Beauty. But that was also the year that the duo of “Costello & Nieve” fully emerged with its own distinct sound and style, surviving the trauma of the Attractions’ permanent dissolution. Their first tour together as a double act was commemorated in a limited-edition box set that quickly sold out, adorned with a sticker that said “Never Before, Never Again.” Thankfully, the sticker seems to have only been referring to the never-reissued box set, not the touring partnership.
In 1998, I was fortunate enough to see one of the few concerts that Burt Bacharach did with Costello at London’s Royal Festival Hall, shortly after the release of their album Painted From Memory. They played a handful of cities together, recruiting local orchestras to replicate the full sound of the record. It was a big show – an event. I remember my mom was in town visiting and I was excited for her to see it so she would finally understand this “Elvis Costello” whose charms had, up to that point, eluded her. That show was the one that finally won her over.
But that show was a cumbersome beast with many moving parts. Most of the touring to promote that record happened the following year, when Elvis and Steve went on the road to present more stripped-down versions of the same songs.
And so it was that, with the exception of Night Five’s performance of “Toledo,” Elvis has been holding back on selections from the Bacharach/Costello songbook until Steve’s arrival, a decision that tonight’s show validated several times over. In addition to finally performing the Bacharach/David classic “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself,” along with the tender “Photographs Can Lie” from 2018’s Grammy-winning Look Now, they also pulled out two of the biggest showstoppers in the Burt and Elvis canon: “What’s Her Name Today?” and “God Give Me Strength.”
The former hasn’t been played in concert since 1999, but you wouldn’t guess it from the way Costello absolutely nailed it tonight. As for the latter, I’ve never heard him sing a bad version of “God Give Me Strength,” a song that should’ve won an Oscar but (shockingly/shamefully) was not even nominated.
Costello took a few moments – as he has on every night of this residency – to speak tenderly about his friendship and creative partnership with Bacharach, at one point wondering aloud as to how on earth the Austin Powers musical with songs written by Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello isn’t playing in a Broadway theater right now. It’s a question worth asking again and again, especially if you know any investors out there looking to make some money on what would surely be the next Spamalot.
There are more of their songs planned for the nights to come, and surely a few unannounced ones will pop up as well. But a good deal of the rest of tonight’s selections hailed from the same quadrant of Costello’s own back catalog, from “Suspect My Tears” to the written for/covered by Dusty Springfield number, “Just a Memory,” and the (also Oscar-robbed) “You Shouldn’t Look at Me That Way.”
I first heard “Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter” on a bootleg recording in 1999, and spent nearly two decades obsessing about how great it was and hoping it would turn up on a record until it finally appeared on 2018’s Look Now. It is a measure of how busy Costello’s 21st century has been that he could bear to sit on a song co-written with Carole King for that long.
Costello seemed to surprise himself with how well “All Grown Up” (from 1991’s underrated masterpiece Mighty Like a Rose) went over — it was the pre-announced track I was most eagerly awaiting tonight and he did not disappoint. Freed from having to play an instrument, he threw himself into its dramatic vocal, gesturing and emoting without restraint, while Nieve gave equal commitment to accompanying him on one of the few tracks where he wasn’t on the original record.
But two of the songs that packed an even bigger emotional wallop were a pair from Costello’s most recent albums: “Byline” from 2020’s Hey Clockface and “Mr. Crescent” from last year’s The Boy Named If. It’s no coincidence that both songs close out their respective LPs. They are devastating. I’m not sure which lyric hit me harder — “that’s just some guy I used to know” or “I wonder where my Honey has gone” — but these songs are exhibits A and B that he continues to produce some of the most powerful and affecting work of his career in the 2020s.
One of the overwhelming things about being six nights deep into this ambitious series is that we are nowhere near running out of top shelf Costello — even a casual glance at the track listings of any of the various “Best Of” compilations he has put out over the years shows that, in most cases, he hasn’t even played half of them yet. One of his biggest American singles, “Veronica,” finally appeared tonight, and it was almost shocking to hear a Top 40 hit after so many nights dominated by deep cuts, b-sides, and non-album tracks.
A few minutes later, when he unexpectedly pulled out not one but TWO Gram Parsons songs from his 1981 Nashville covers album, Almost Blue, the audience couldn’t have been more thrilled. Then he followed it with 1978 b-side “Tiny Steps” as if it was the most normal thing in the world to do. These shows are spoiling us rotten and he knows it, and we have four more shows before we have to return to a New York that doesn’t have three or four Elvis Costello shows a week with no repeats. I’m not ready.
- Leave it to Costello to sing a line from Sam Cooke’s “Cupid” two days after his Valentine’s Day show, followed by a quick off-the-cuff chorus of Hot Chocolate’s “You Sexy Thing.”
- One fun fact about Dusty Springfield’s recording of “Just a Memory” (re-titled “Losing You”) on her 1982 LP White Heat: the bass is credited to Davey Faragher, who 20 years later would become the bass player in Costello’s new (and still together) backing band, the Imposters, alongside former Attractions Pete Thomas and Steve Nieve.
- Among the many names dropped casually in various contexts during between-song patter and introductions tonight included: Sir Paul McCartney, Tom Waits, Mike Myers, Alfred Hitchcock, Larry “Bud” Melman, Eric Morecambe, Annette Bening, Warren Beatty, Bruce Thomas, and Morrissey.
- Is “The Long Honeymoon” a perfect song? Every time I hear it, it goes up even further in my estimation.
- Speaking of which, until tonight, 1982’s Imperial Bedroom had only had one song on the big board, and I’m assuming that Steve’s arrival means it’s going to be running up its numbers significantly over Nights Seven through Ten.
- That’s certainly what happened to Look Now — a whopping EIGHT songs from that LP have been played since Steve showed up in the aisle the other night.
- Still zero songs from Punch the Clock, The Juliet Letters, North, or Rusty’s The Resurrection of Rust. Those three albums all have at least one song each on the nights to come, but I get the feeling the Rusty EP would’ve been featured on Night One, if at all.
- Two more of my “wish list” songs were played tonight, bringing my total up to 10! “Mr. Crescent” and “What’s Her Name Today?” made their North American and 21st Century debuts, respectively.
- Steve was given a hero’s welcome tonight, and rightfully so — he and Costello are clearly still delighted to be onstage together. At one point, when Costello busted a guitar string in the middle of “Veronica,” Nieve improvised a quick new instrumental section while Elvis swapped out for a new one, and instantly clicked back into the song as if that was exactly how it was supposed to go.
- Tonight’s variation on Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding?” had Steve taking the lead vocal with he and Costello switching instruments for much of the song until they finally ended up with Steve on piano and Elvis on guitar. Each night’s variation has been a delight. I can’t wait to see what they do next.
- I’ve been better about making sure I grab the nightly pre-show postcard, and tonight I finally remembered to approach the bar and grab one of the complimentary “Elvis Costello” coasters before the show. I also noticed that there are twice as many not-for-sale promotional pillows as I had previously realized, so the odds of a successful Pillow Heist just doubled, theoretically.
- An array of “test pressings” have showed up for sale at the merch table for those inclined to collect such pricey, scarce things. I’m the simple-minded type who is more likely to be drawn in by pretty colored vinyl. I bought a second copy of The Boy Named If just for the novelty of it having the old “Capitol Records” logo on the label, because it reminds me of my dad’s Frank Sinatra records (which I started buying editions of myself after reading Costello enthusing about the wonders of In the Wee Small Hours and Only the Lonely). By the way, did you ever read the record lists that Costello put together for Vanity Fair two decades ago? One is 500 Albums Essential To a Happy Life and the other is his hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute playlist for a full 24-hour day. If you haven’t encountered them before, you’re welcome.
Thursday, Feb 16th – Elvis Costello with Steve Nieve – Night Six
“Accidents Will Happen”
“The Loved Ones”
“Suspect My Tears”
“I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself”
“Photographs Can Lie”
“Just a Memory”
“All Grown Up”
“Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter”
“The Final Mrs. Curtain”
“The Long Honeymoon”
“You Shouldn’t Look at Me That Way”
“What’s Her Name Today?”
“God Give Me Strength”
“How Much I Lied”
“I’m Your Toy”
“Waiting for the End of the World”
“(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding”
Connor Ratliff is an actor/comedian based in New York. He is the creator of the critically acclaimed podcast, Dead Eyes. You might have seen him in the role of “Chester” on multiple seasons of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.