In his thirty-odd years of making music, Elvis Costello has tried on many sonic hats. Whether it’s Tin Pan Alley, straight up punk, reggae, Stax-style R&B, Tom Waits-style experimental pop, classical, opera, big band or New Orleans-style jazz, the singer/songwriter has always brought his A-game. But other than the new wave-cum-pub rock sound he crafted for himself over the last three-and-a-half decades, it seems as though country music has fit the shape-shifting British rock icon the most comfortably. After all, one of his earliest forays into popular music came after leaving his day job as a computer programmer in the '70s, fronting a country-rock group called Flip City.
Costello’s latest album, the excellent and under-appreciated “Secret, Profane and Sugarcane”, marks his third official foray into the country genre, following his 1981 George Jones fix “Almost Blue” and 1986’s critically-hailed “King of America.” In celebration of the new album’s release, Elvis gathered together the ragtag ensemble of Nashville’s best session musicians who worked on the record and embarked on a brief six-city tour, the second stop of which was Wednesday night (June 10) at the Beacon Theatre in the singer’s adopted hometown of New York City.
Dubbed The Sugarcanes, Costello’s string band is comprised of such noteworthy names as modern bluegrass sensation Jim Lauderdale on guitar, dobro master Jerry Douglas, fiddle player Stuart Duncan of the Nashville Bluegrass Band, Dennis Crouch on upright bass, Mike Compton on mandolin and Jeff Taylor on accordion and Jim Lauderdale. Elvis and this top-notch group wowed the sold-out audience at the Beacon with a largely acoustic, two-hour-plus set consisting of the entirety of “Secret, Profane and Sugarcane” peppered across a wild selection of favorites and choice covers, all reworked to fit the flavor of the new material.
Elvis certainly spelunked into his catalog for this tour, breaking out songs he has not played in years. “Blame It On Cain” and “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes,” both from Costello’s 1977 debut “My Aim Is True,” sounded as good as they have in years redone in a bluegrass style. His Top 40 hit from 1983’s “Punch the Clock,” “Everyday I Write The Book,” was redressed as a gorgeous country waltz. 2004’s “The Delivery Man” also got some attention, as Elvis broke out his hollow-body electric guitar for a dark run through its title track and closed out the show with “The Scarlet Tide,” sans Emmylou Harris. He also gave a tip of the hat to his pal Lou Reed with a rendition of the Nico-era Velvet Underground chestnut “Femme Fatale,” of which a studio version appears on the vinyl edition of “Sugarcane.”
Meanwhile, material from “King of America” got almost as much attention as the new album, as Costello dove into his Americana classic with aplomb, delivering wonderful readings of the album’s signature hit “Brilliant Mistake” along with such deep cuts as “Our Little Angel,” “Indoor Fireworks,” “American Without Tears” and a quaint, almost Celtic-like reworking of “Little Palaces.” “Almost Blue” also got a little recognition in the set via that album’s signature highlight—Costello’s rendition of the Merle Haggard standard “Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down.”
This is not to discount the material from “Secret, Profane and Sugarcane” that dominated the concert overall. While the critics have not been the most kind to Elvis’ latest, the milquetoast reviews certainly did not reflect the fans in attendance at the Beacon who reveled in the new stuff, particularly such key tracks as “Complicated Shadows,” the ragtime-esque “My All Time Doll” and the album’s main theme, “Sulphur To Sugarcane.”
Costello’s tenure as the host of “Spectacle with Elvis Costello” on the Sundance Channel, coupled with the relaxed atmosphere of the set, seems to have inspired him to work the room between songs more than usual. He told tales about his father, legendary English bandleader Ross MacManus, working with Loretta Lynn on the “Sugarcane” track “I Felt The Chill Before The Winter Came,” and about his unfinished commission with the Danish Royal Opera on the life of Hans Christian Andersen, two songs of which appear on the new album and were played on this night.
At the end of the evening, Costello paid back the crowd for all of their patience and enthusiasm by delivering a second encore featuring great string versions of his two biggest hits, “Allison” (which included a snippet of Jim Reeves’ “Put Your Sweet Lips”) and “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” as well as a faithful rendition of The Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil."
Costello and the Sugarcanes’ will close out their tour with gigs at the Booth Ampitheatre in Cary, North Carolina and the legendary former home of the Grand Ole Opry, the Ryman Auditorium, in Nashville, Tennessee.
Here is Elvis Costello and the Sugarcanes' setlist:
“My Resistance Is Low”
“My All Time Doll”
“Tonight, the Bottle Let Me Down”
“Don’t Among the Wines and Spirits”
“Our Little Angel”
“I Felt the Chill Before Winter Came”
“The Delivery Man” (Sugar version)
“The Butcher’s Boy”
“How Deep Is the Red”
“Blame It on Cain”
“I Dreamed of My Old Lover Last Night”
“Five Small Words”
“She Handed Me a Mirror”
“There’s a Story in Your Voice”
“Everyday I Write the Book” (Sugar version)
“She Was No Good”
“Little Palaces” (Sugar version)
“The Crooked Line”
“American Without Tears”
“Red Shoes” (Sugar version)
“The Race Is On”
“Sulphur to Sugarcane”
“He’ll Have to Go”
“Peace Love and Understanding”
“The Scarlet Tide”
“Friend of the Devil”