Last night, in his only New York performance this fall, Elvis Costello and his latest band the Sugarcanes treated a sold-out crowd at WNYC’s Greene Space in SoHo to a lush, often riveting mix of new material (the interview with host Leonard Lopate airs tomorrow, November 3). Costello’s politically charged new album National Ransom is just out, a tuneful, erudite, classy state-of-the-world address which would be the highlight of just about any other musician’s career. For Costello, it’s just another album (double vinyl album, to be precise, also available in the usual digital configurations). Looking wiry and wired, the greatest songwriter in the history of the English language bantered bitingly between songs with Lopate, who quickly sized up the situation and smartly backed off, letting his fellow chatshow host take over and entertain the crowd. At one point, Costello leaned over to look at Lopate’s cheat sheet: Lopate feigned umbrage, Costello graciously responding that his own guests always peek at the questions before they’re asked.
Given the new album’s vintage Americana flavor, Lopate remarked that the songs would be suited for a 78 RPM recording (which Costello has actually done recently). Costello replied that he’d be “utilizing all the available formats to the fullest extent possible…I’m trying to make as many records as possible before the whole thing shuts down.” He was quick to belittle the sonic limitations of an mp3: “They sound like hell – can I say ‘shite?””
Lopate reminded him that there was no going back since the cat was now out of the bag. “Direct to the ears is the best,” Costello grinned, playing to the crowd. He belittled his own guitar chops, as usual, but he played well, firing off a deft series of chromatics on his concluding solo out of a tense, potently evocative version of One Bell Rings, a chillingly allusive account of a torture victim inspired by the murder of Jean Charles de Menezes. Lopate focused on the album’s social relevance: when prodded, Costello didn’t claim to have any answers, although he was quick to assert that, referring to the 2008 market crash, “In other times, if you could have a negative value as currency, they would have thought you were a witch!” The theme played to a murderous crescendo on a rousing version of the album’s title cut, accordionist Jeff Taylor imbuing it with a bit of a zydeco flavor as he would many of the other songs.
The rest of the show was equally gripping. They’d opened with a swinging version of a straight-up country song, I Lost You, following with Dr. Watson I Presume, which builds to an understatedly haunting, relentless, deathly countdown. Jimmie Standing in the Rain, a brooding chronicle of a 1930s performer who “picked the wrong time to do cowboy music – not that there’s a right time,” evoked the terse grimness of Richard Thompson’s Al Bowlly’s in Heaven. The upbeat R&B of The Spell That You Cast had the whole band doing a call-and-response with backing vocals; That’s Not the Part of Him You’re Leaving may be the best country song Costello’s ever written, a lushly successful mix of vintage countrypolitan and characteristically acerbic lyricism. They closed with a mysteriously lyrical spy story, All These Strangers. The album comes out today.