Elvis Costello at the Gramercy Theater – February 10, 2023

On February 10, 2023, Elvis Costello performed a concert in which a Declan MacManus performance broke out. When the ten show residency at the Gramercy Theatre in Manhattan was announced, Costello promised to perform 100 different songs from his catalog across the ten nights, with ten songs selected beforehand by Costello to help “each night…tell a different tale.” Costello said that this approach would allow him to “shake off the old routine.”

Upon entrance into the Gramercy, audience members were handed a card with the song selections for the evening, similar to a menu describing the multiple courses to be served at a fine dining restaurant. We learned later that Costello would not stick to the order of the songs listed but instead used them as a superstructure in which to build the night’s setlist. The concert featured many Costello stand-outs, but mainly focused on deep cuts that would be classics or hits if composed or performed by another artist. Costello simply has too many songs in his body of work, resulting in many that are overlooked.

Costello came to the stage wreathed in guitars and a piano while wearing the requisite sunglasses. He started the show by playing an acoustic guitar that had hints of distorted effects which shimmering into the space above the audience. The opening song was “Jack of All Parades,” one of four songs played from 1986’s King of America. Costello’s stated theme for the night was “travel and exile” and that album underlines the confusion, paranoia, self-delusion, and sometimes substance abuse that comes from banishment — self-inflicted or not. 

Costello was in solid form as a performer. Though slightly breathy in his delivery, he was able to hit the appropriate notes, or find an alternative one that suited the melody. He also said that the promised 100 songs was a “lie because it’s more like 200.” The second song “Watch Your Step,” originally featuring a tight compact groove unmistakingly fueled by The Attractions and laced with Costello’s vaguely threatening lyrics. The Gramercy version was converted into a Blonde on Blonde-era arrangement with a more haunted, regretful tone.

Emotions were heavy for the duration of the concert as Costello told stories about his grandfather entering America through Ellis Island in the 1920s, saying, “My grandfather is the star of the show tonight.” He also noted the loss of his friend and collaborator Burt Bacharach whose death was publicly announced only the previous day. Highlights of this section of the show included he-had-to-do-it “New Amsterdam” (explored here on Recliner Notes), “Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head,” and the gorgeous overhauled arrangement of “Deportee” (also covered previously by Recliner Notes) which provided the night’s presentational template for Costello’s solo acoustic numbers.

Costello moved to stage left, sat in a chair, accepted an electric guitar, and began singing “Battered Old Bird.” Originally recorded with The Attractions for Blood & Chocolate as a straight forward belter to showcase Costello’s vocal chops, Costello utilized sonics reminiscent of Daniel Lanois-produced albums, sharing the atmospherics of Le Noise by Neil Young and the graveyard whistling tone of Dylan’s Time Out of Mind. Costello must have demanded, “Give me the full Lanois,” as he drenched the song with drum machine beats, swirling echoes, spooky guitar loops, and train noises (notwithstanding the chance that those sounds were produced underneath the theater as is often the case in Manhattan).

From here, Costello moved to the piano on stage right, lightening the move slightly with “The Other Side of Summer” before playing “Red Cotton” on both banjo and piano to tell the story of how his one-time home Liverpool has blood on its hands as a direct beneficiary of slavery. (Of the banjo, Costello commented after the song, “It’s a beautiful instrument that maybe I will someday learn how to play.”) From that no-shits-taken composition, Costello asked for forgiveness for everyone in the room as he performed a gospel rendition of “I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down” on the piano. At times, he moved into a Frankie Valli falsetto for a few lines, prompting whoops from the crowd before calling on everyone to “stand up” over and over again for a rousing standing ovation which Costello answered with numerous Jerry Lee Lewis-style glissandos on the piano.

It was at this point that the evening took a turn. As Costello stood up from the piano, he gestured as if to say “I’ll be right back. ” The audience seemed to settle in and prepare for an intermission. Suddenly, a band materialized on stage alongside Costello. It was a band equally at home with traditional Irish slip jig music and old-timey American string band tunes. It was here that the audience realized that we were watching the performance of a man born as Declan MacManus rather than the man who once took “Elvis Costello” as a stage name seemingly on a dare.

The band consisted of long-time Dylan sideman Tony Garnier on upright bass, Brigid Kaelin on accordion and even the musical saw, the fiddle stylings of Eleanor Whitmore, Colin Nairne on mandolin, and Professor Kara Doyle playing whistle and uilleann pipes. (This reviewer was able to identify the uilleann pipes thanks to his host being born outside of Dublin.) Earlier in the concert, Costello had said that he would not be having any special guests that evening, saying, “It’s really just me.” The audience was happy to overlook this little white lie.

The Celtic band flavor took hold immediately with “American Without Tears,” “Any King’s Shilling,” and highlighted by “Little Palaces” which fulfilled the Celtic melody promise of its original recording through this new Irish jig band treatment. This approach was especially felt in the extended pipe solo that recalled the old Gaelic stories of Cuchulain’s fight with the sea

Though the Gramercy was originally built as a moviehouse, it is situated not far from the hotbed of New York’s 19th century vaudeville scene. An often overlooked part of New York City’s musical past (read Lucy Sante’s essential Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York for more of that history), Costello evoked this spirit by performing his geographical sex pun epic “Sulfur to Sugarcane.” The song featured lines such as “The women in Poughkeepsie / Take their clothes off when they’re tipsy” and “I’m digging like a miner North and South Carolina / And then if you continue you will end up in Virginia.” Costello delivered these lines with delight as his glee in the naughtiness of the song was apparent. Each musician took a solo with Costello’s coaxing and then delivered the harmonies of the chorus again and again.

The last song before the finale was “The Scarlet Tide,” a song teeming with obvious emotion for Costello as his vocal harmonies accompanied by Whitmore and Kaelin evoked the oldest and deepest Appalachian Mountains melody this side of The Stanley Brothers. “Man has no choice / When he wants everything” forced the citizens and residents of this country to consider the blessing and the curse of everything that makes up the United States of America. Recalling the payment in blood by many who never benefited from their toil. This has now exasperated, magnified, and extrapolated out to those current ancestors still laboring in shadows today. The performance was sublime and spellbinding.

With the heaviness of that message still haunting the theater, Costello finished the show with his most famous recording, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding.” The now classic tale of Costello reclaiming this song from Nick Lowe and the dustbin of history was previously analyzed on Recliner Notes. By dropping Lowe’s original ironic point of view, Costello made the song universal and accepted the mantle of the song’s anthemic nature. The February 10th performance evoked the fiddle-forward approach of Van Morrison’s 1979 classic album Into the Music. Solos were featured again with an especially beautiful and humorous turn from the flute as everyone collectively wondered if there had ever been a performance of “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding” with an extended flute solo. Nevertheless, Costello, the band, and the audience repeated the chorus again and again.

It’s unclear if Costello is recording this show or any of the shows in the residency. The themes of each individual concert would be an ideal platform to demonstrate the mutiverse level of Costello’s musical forms and the layered passions and emotions of his lyrics. If not released, the memory of the appearance of Declan MacManus during this Elvis Costello concert on a Friday night in early February will not be forgotten.

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