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Interview: Elvis Costello's aim is still true

STEVE MADDEN
STEVE MADDEN
Published Mar. 13, 2015

An Elvis Costello story, from Emmylou Harris:

"We were doing an outdoor show, I think it was in Pittsburgh, and right in the middle of the set this train went by, making this horrendous noise that trains make," Harris said. "And Elvis is never going to be stopped by anything. He just immediately, on his own, went into (Elvis Presley's) Mystery Train. And the whole band came in with him, and I started singing with him, and after that, that became part of our set."

Over the phone from New York, Costello cackles at the memory.

"That's exactly right!" he exclaims. "She remembers it exactly right. The train track runs right behind the stage in Pittsburgh. It's funny that she should remember that. I've seen it happen to my wife (jazz singer Diana Krall) as well, but she's got a few more tunes. She played Take the A Train when that happened. You've got to think on your feet in this business, you know?"

Few do it as well as Costello, the irascible, irrepressible New Wave icon who, at age 60, is as feisty as ever on the live concert stage. Nearly 40 years and 30 albums into an iconoclastic career, the English songsmith born Declan McManus still loves to zig when the world expects a zag, especially when he's out on the road in America.

Many of his tours these days — such as his current solo Detour, which hits Ruth Eckerd Hall on Monday — are, like the man himself, freewheeling and unpredictable, with Costello reaching deep into his catalog to play whatever song moves him at the moment. His last Clearwater show, in 2012, was part of his Spectacular Spinning Songbook Tour, in which parts of his set list were dictated by a giant twirling wheel at center stage.

Like Bruce Springsteen, Dave Matthews, Pearl Jam or any artist who performs without a carved-in-stone set list, Costello's goal with each gig is to hit that improvisatory sweet spot between anticipation and surprise, yielding moments of pure, spontaneous delight. Each night before a paying audience is an "opportunity," he says, "to give them something they haven't seen before."

"I like to give the feeling it can go anywhere," he says. "That's why the tour is titled Detour. It invites the thought that we could go anywhere — and let's go there, you know?"

• • •

When Elvis Costello dies, every televised obituary, every in memoriam newsreel, surely will spin the famous clip from his 1977 appearance on Saturday Night Live. Costello, then largely unknown in America, sabotaged his own performance by abruptly cutting off his new single Less Than Zero after a few bars ("I'm sorry, ladies and gentlemen, there's no reason to do this song here.") and ripping into Radio Radio instead. That incident resulted in a 12-year ban from SNL, but it also established his rep as a showman: a smirking instigator with the spectacles of a chemist but the bird-flipping soul of a punk.

That image has persisted, and Costello has largely lived up to it — his sprawling discography veers wildly from genre to genre, including collaborative albums with artists as disparate as Burt Bacharach, Allen Toussaint and the Roots. His latest endeavor is the New Basement Tapes, a folk-rock supergroup — featuring, among others, Mumford and Sons' Marcus Mumford and My Morning Jacket's Jim James — that gave life to a collection of once-lost Bob Dylan lyrics from the '60s.

As Costello puts it: "Life's a long time, and you need more than one type of song to get through it."

But as a live performer, Costello says, he has grown out of 1977's "more confrontational point of view. When you're young and you're full of yourself and you're up on self-importance, you kind of go, 'We've got something new here, and you'd better listen to us.' That gets old and it becomes a routine. That becomes an act."

So you grow, and you mature, and as your fan base expands, you play the hits as expected — and over time, that becomes an act, too. "A lot of people come out and they have one show and they have all their light cues worked out, their backing tracks all programmed, and that's all well and good if that's the kind of show you want to go and see," Costello says. "But that's not the kind of show I do."

Okay. So what kind of show does Costello do?

"I'm up there with my songs," he says, "and I have the guitars and the instruments that I need to play them. I have about five shows laid out. I have lists of things. But they're only just sort of a guide. I'll say, 'I'm going to go this way tonight, because that's what this theater looks like, or that's the way I'm feeling today.' And then something happens, and it takes you off in a different direction. Sometimes people call for something, and you play that song, and in the playing of that song, it suggests the mood of another song, or the story of another song."

Every decision Costello makes on stage affects each concert in ways even he doesn't always see coming.

When he sits instead of stands: "You play the guitar differently when you're sitting down. You sing differently, and maybe you talk a little bit more intimately."

When he moves to the piano: "I'm relatively limited at that instrument, but it is one on which I write a lot, so if you want to hear how the songs truthfully go, that's when you're going to hear them."

When he feels the audience beginning to drift: "Then it's time to get up and make a noise and get people's blood pumping a bit — and your own."

Cynics have argued — perhaps "because of the variety of things I've done," he says — that all of this may sound too rehearsed to be real, that over a lifetime of live performance, Costello has grown too calculating, too detached from his 23-year-old self, to unleash another Radio Radio moment on the world.

Ever the contrarian, Costello argues that rock music has no orthodox definition, that a richly learned and lived-in performance can be just as moving as one that's spur of the moment.

"You can start to elevate the idea of 'rock and roll,' or some sort of raw, spontaneous performance, as being the only true way to do it," he says. "That's kind of a boring way to be, I think, is that there's only one way to play. Orthodoxy is the enemy of what I do."

• • •

Costello's Ruth Eckerd Hall gig is the first of two he'll play in Tampa Bay in 2015. He'll be back with a full band, the Imposters, opening for Steely Dan on Aug. 11 at Tampa's MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre. At that show, hits like Alison, Veronica and (What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding will surely sound more like their old, familiar selves.

But does that make them better? Costello isn't so sure. At a solo concert last year at Carnegie Hall, he introduced 1983's Everyday I Write the Book, his first Top 40 single in the States, by announcing: "I'm going to play you a song now that I really hate. I wrote it in 10 minutes, and then it was a hit."

Nothing against trotting out the hits — Costello still plays them every night — but there's a difference between playing Radio Radio because you have to, and playing it because it feels right and true in that moment. Embracing this has brought Costello "a lot of joy" on these solo and Spectacular Spinning Songbook tours.

"I think it's made the performances more emotional and stronger in the last few years, because I've been following my instincts instead of starting out, 'Well, I must play that. I have an obligation to play that song,' " he says. "You've got to earn the right to play the songs. Even the ones that people think they want to hear because they're famous, you can easily confuse yourself about that, and then you're playing the songs for cheap applause. Why would you do that? That's cheating the people who've bought the tickets."

It's risky to play Radio Radio on Saturday Night Live, to assume your band can keep up with your lead on Mystery Train, to walk on stage all alone without knowing exactly what you're about to play.

It's also the only way Elvis Costello cares to live.

"I'd rather take the risk and occasionally stumble," he says, "than take no risk at all."

Contact Jay Cridlin at jcridlin@tampabay.com.

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