Elvis Costello is performing 200+ songs from his 600+ songbook over 10 consecutive 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. Check out Ratliff’s report from Night One here.
In yesterday’s report, I self-indulgently included a preposterous wish list of obscurities and deep cut songs I hoped might appear in one of these shows.
One of the reasons the list leaned so far to the edges of Elvis Costello’s songbook is that many of my top wishes had already been included amongst the pre-announced songs he is definitely going to play during his 10 nights at the Gramercy Theatre. Night Two is the list with the highest number for me, with a full eight songs that I have no memory of ever seeing him perform live.
First among them was one of my favorite tracks from 1986’s King of America, “Jack of all Parades.” On Thursday night, Costello between songs briefly told the story of the person who inspired the lyric “Once I knew a girl who looked so much like Judy Garland / That people would stop and give her money.” The anecdotal version wasn’t too many words off from the way he expresses it in the song — it was like hearing Dylan casually drop into conversation that someone’s got it in for him and they’re planting stories in the press.
It served as a call-forward to Friday’s opening number, and an indication that these 10 shows are going to inevitably exist in a sort of continuing dialogue between artist and audience (Costello’s informal polling of the crowd seemed to indicate that about half of those in attendance had been at both shows). While last night focused entirely on pre-1978 material, tonight’s setlist effortlessly zig-zagged between decades, with a range of songs from 1980’s Get Happy!! all the way up to 2009’s Secret, Profane and Sugarcane.
The first half of the concert sprinkled in stunning surprises like the Guys & Dolls-influenced b-side, “Heathen Town” (complete with a bonus quote from “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” at the end), When I Was Cruel’s infectious “My Little Blue Window,” and a lovely piano-led performance of “The Other Side of Summer.”
Even the pre-announced songs managed to surprise, whether it was the rhythm machine and apocalyptic mood lighting for “Battered Old Bird” or the banjo-and-piano combo he deployed for the equally (but differently) intense “Red Cotton.”
I’m not sure I’ve ever been to a concert before where basically every song elicited a standing ovation from the audience. It sounds like that would be awkward, maybe even uncomfortable, but honestly, I think pretty much everyone who bought a ticket to these shows is hearing songs that they have been waiting to hear for years — and in some cases, decades. A woman several seats down from me uttered what sounded like an incredibly heartfelt “THANK YOU” at the end of “Heathen Town,” as if she had made a wish long ago that had finally, at long last, been granted.
Costello’s announced theme for the evening was songs about travel and exile, a picture that had begun to form with selections like “New Amsterdam” but pulled sharply into focus with “Deportee” (his low-key re-working of Goodbye Cruel World’s “The Deportees Club”) and “Last Boat Leaving,” the powerful closing track from 1989’s Spike. The latter two songs were performed during a portion of the show where Elvis sits down, stage left. During both nights, he has been quick to point out that it’s not because he’s tired, but because he wants to get down closer and meet our eyeline.
As with Night One, it provided some of the most affecting moments of the evening, allowing him to sing quietly and draw the audience in (as he sang “Schnapps, chianti, porter and ouzo/Pernod, vodka, sambuca/I love you so/Deportee,” the audience was as hushed as if he was defusing a bomb) or fully get into character with unrestrained emotion (“You’ve taken the place where I once belonged/Now what more can you take?”).
After belting out Sam & Dave’s “I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down” at the stage right piano, Costello briefly left the stage, promising he’d be back with a surprise. Seconds later, a full band emerged from the wings and the whole theater began to buzz as we watched them set up their instruments (“That’s Bob Dylan’s bass player!” I was enthusiastically informed by a nearby acquaintance). Costello introduced them all (Eleanor Whitmore on fiddle & vocals, Brigid Kaelin on accordion, musical saw, piano, and vocals, Colin Nairne on mandolin, Tony Garnier on double bass, and Professor Kara Doyle on uilleann pipes & whistle) and they went straight into a superb second half of the show, beginning with “American Without Tears.”
The band brought a terrific spirit and energy to every song, by turns playful (“Sulphur To Sugarcane”), heartfelt (“Any King’s Shilling”), or intense (“Little Palaces”), depending on what the moment called for. I was enjoying the show so much that I totally forgot to anticipate “Sleep of the Just” even though it was one of the titles I was most looking forward to. I was too busy being transported into the mood and world of each new song as it came along.
“It’s kind of an Irish vibe tonight,” Elvis remarked at one point, before leading into the Irish-American anthem he co-wrote with the Chieftains’ Paddy Moloney, “The Long Journey Home.” Two nights in, nothing has surprised me more than getting a full band performance of this song. It will be a hard one to top, expectations-wise.
- I should’ve mentioned yesterday that there is one song which, seemingly, will end every show: Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding” is Costello’s most tried-and-true closing song, which never fails to land with an audience.
- I wanted to reiterate how bonkers tonight’s opening sequence of songs was — like in a “wow, look at these first 5 songs” sort of way — but one sign of how bonkers it was is that I couldn’t decide when to stop listing them, and at a certain point, I realized that I was just re-typing the entire setlist.
- It always feels good to hear him play “New Amsterdam” but it feels extra special when he sings it in NYC.
- Costello’s falsetto is as confident now as it was three decades ago. There were several moments tonight where it could’ve easily been a swing and a miss, and he nailed it every time.
- He introduced the song “Little Palaces” with a bit of stage patter explaining how, in the U.K., the trains headed to and from the Cadbury’s chocolate factory were decorated to look like Bournville chocolate bars. The same year this song came out, 1986, he also issued a cassette edition of the album Blood & Chocolate designed to look like a Bournville, until Cadbury’s objections forced the label to delete it. You can still find the cassettes on eBay, but actual Bournville wrappers don’t look like that anymore.
- I first heard “Dirty Rotten Shame” on a cassette tape I ordered from a guy named Kevin from NYC, who advertised in the pages of Goldmine back in the mid-1990s. Elvis did a run of shows at the Beacon Theatre, testing out material for what would end up being his final album with the Attractions, and Kevin had tapes of those shows available for sale. One of the tracks was “Dirty Rotten Shame” and I liked it just fine at the time (age 20) but boy oh boy does it hit harder at age 47. There are some songs you simply have to age into.
- It was fun watching the interplay between Costello and the other musicians, especially when Kaelin was making him laugh with occasional unexpected interjections on the accordion.
- Update on my wish list of nearly 50 songs: “Heathen Town,” “American Without Tears”(part 1 but not its follow-up, the “Twilight Version”), and “My Little Blue Window” all turned up tonight. If it continues at this rate (highly unlikely), I could get half my wish list!
- “The Scarlet Tide” was pre-announced for Night Three, but turned up ahead of schedule. Either it’s gonna repeat, or we can expect an additional unannounced song on Saturday night.
Stray merch observations:
- The downstairs merch included t-shirts specifically designed for each of the nights at Gramercy as well as other apparel tailored to the full run more generally.
- The stairs are decorated with titles of Costello songs. I never imagined I would see these combinations of words on any stairs, anywhere.
- I asked if the little “Elvis Costello presented by Citi” pillows were for sale and was informed that they are not; they are for promotional display purposes only. Part of my brain then started planning for the stupidest heist ever attempted, to steal one of those pillows.
- I calculated that I didn’t have the t-shirt budget for all 10 nights and I own too many t-shirts anyway, so I ended up buying a limited-edition pullover rain hoodie that I’m hoping wasn’t a bad choice. I will admit that the very nice woman working the merch area pointed to the hoodies on display and said, “this is all we have of these” and the tactic worked on me, 100%. I bought one with the urgency of a man who had come to the theater specifically to buy one, desperately hoping that they weren’t sold out yet.
Friday, Feb. 10th – Elvis Costello Solo – Night Two
“Jack Of All Parades”
“Watch Your Step”
“Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head”
“My Little Blue Window”
“Last Boat Leaving”
“Battered Old Bird”
“The Other Side of Summer”
“I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down”
“American Without Tears”
“Any King’s Shilling”
“The Long Journey Home”
“The Crooked Line”
“Dirty Rotten Shame”
“Sulphur to Sugarcane”
“Sleep of the Just”
“The Scarlet Tide”
“(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.