Sometimes artists record albums to make a cohesive, singular statement. Sometimes, the LP is simply a collection of what the writer has laying around that he hasn’t used yet, but, for the most part, when an album is released, unless it is a ‘concept album’ like The Who’s ‘Quadrophenia’ or Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’, the artist never intends to perform the entire record in front of a live audience. In early 2016, Bruce Springsteen embarked on ‘The River Tour’ in which he played his entire two-record set from start to finish. By the time the second leg of the tour finished, that idea was abandoned, simply because the pacing of a record does not always make for great pacing in a live setting.
Which brings us to Elvis Costello’s latest US tour, which stopped in DC last night; entitled ‘Imperial Bedroom and other Chambers’, Elvis and his band The Imposters promised to play the entire ‘Imperial Bedroom’ album, along with other songs from all eras of his career. And, the first thing Elvis got right that The Boss did not is, he chose not to play the songs in running order, which would have made for a very strange live show. Knowing before the show began that I would hear ‘You Little Fool’ and ‘Man Out of Time’, two of my all-time favorite Costello songs, I was extremely excited to see what the evening would bring as my friend Dana and I made our way inside the beautiful Warner Theatre.
Elvis kicked things off with a very deep cut, and a song not from ‘Imperial Bedroom’. Instead he started the evening with ‘Town Where Time Stood Still’ from the ‘Punch the Clock’ album. I admit, it was one I did not immediately recognize until the chorus showed up, and even then, the initial sound mix made the lyrics a bit hard to understand. If the audience wasn’t really sure what to make of the opener, that was soon corrected when drummer extraordinaire Pete Thomas launched into ‘Lipstick Vogue’, played at breakneck speed.
Before launching into the first ‘Imperial Bedroom’ selection of the night, ‘The Loved Ones’ Elvis asked the crowd ‘Are we sick of this yet?’ The audience seemed perplexed, as the show was just getting started. ‘I don’t mean the show, you know what I mean! Are we sick of this yet?!’ he clarified, to which the crowd roared their approval.
A word about the album ‘Imperial Bedroom’: It was released in July 1982, only eight months after Elvis had released an album made up entirely of covers of classic country music, which puzzled many of his fans, who expected the ‘Angry Young Man’ of ‘Armed Forces’ or ‘This Year’s Model’. ‘Imperial Bedroom’ is not for everyone, and it doesn’t have many instantly recognizable radio hits that the casual fan would recognize. For all that the album may not be, it does in fact contain Costello’s strongest lyrics to date, perhaps ever. Here is one example, from the standout track ‘Man Out of Time”:
There`s a tuppeny hapenny millionaire
Looking for a fourpenny one
With a tight grip on the short hairs
Of the public imagination
But for his private wife and kids somehow
Real life becomes a rumour
Days of dutch courage
Just three French letters and a German sense of humour
He`s got a mind like a sewer and a heart like a fridge
He stands to be insulted and he pays for the privilege
Almost every track on the album demonstrates Costello’s lyrical acumen, and if the public at large weren’t ready to follow him, he didn’t care. Thankfully the record has been repackaged and rereleased several times over the last twenty years, allowing fans to rediscover and appreciate it, and I think today the album, rightfully so, is considered one of the best in Elvis’ 40+ year career. Playing all of the songs live was no small feat, but for those lucky 1400 fans in attendance, it made for a very memorable evening.
Here’s the setlist, then some thoughts:
The Town Where Time Stood Still
On Your Way Down
The Loved Ones
Accidents Will Happen
You’ll Never Be a Man
Tears Before Bedtime
Moods for Moderns
This House Is Empty Now
Watching the Detectives
The Long Honeymoon
Pills and Soap
Hand in Hand
You Little Fool
Shot With His Own Gun
Kid About It
…And in Every Home
Man Out of Time
Everyday I Write the Book
Blood & Hot Sauce
A Face in the Crowd
(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea
Pump It Up
(What’s So Funny ’bout) Peace, Love and Understanding
Mid-set, hearing, in this order ‘Pills and Soap’ (again, a song that is an acquired taste), ‘Hand In Hand’, ‘Hi Fidelity’ and ‘You Little Fool’ was the portion of the show that seemed to be directed right at me! Hearing those songs all in a row, almost without even a break to differentiate where one ended and the next began, was a wonderful moment for this longtime fan.
While the set mostly consisted of material originally performed by Elvis & The Attractions, along with one of his collaborations with Burt Bacharach, the evening wasn’t completely about nostalgia. Costello is working on a musical adaptation of the 1957 film ‘A Face in the Crowd’ which starred Andy Griffith as a man who rises from the gutter to the halls of power. (If you’ve never seen the film, I highly recommend it). Elvis showcased three songs from the production, which definitely gave the proceedings a political undertone.
A shout out to the mad musical genius that is piano/keyboard player Steve Nieve. His showcase piece of the evening was a charged and tense rendition of “Shot With His Own Gun”. Thomas, Nieve and bass player Davey Faragher (the “new guy” who’s been with the others for about fifteen years) were on point throughout the night, helping to keep things moving.
The second to last song of the night was the crowd pleaser ‘Pump It Up’ which had everyone dancing, regardless of their politics and then he closed the night with a song written by Nick Lowe and recorded by Elvis in 1978. The song of course was ‘(What’s So Funny ‘bout) Peace Love & Understanding’ and, I cannot think of a more appropriate song (or question for that matter) given the current climate. It’s quite a feat when a song originally written in 1974 is now, forty-two years later, even more frighteningly relevant than I think its author or the evening’s performer could have ever possibly imagined.
As I walk on through this wicked world,
Searching for light in the darkness of insanity,
I ask myself, Is all hope lost?
Is there only pain, and hatred, and misery?
And each time I feel like this inside,
There’s one thing I wanna know,
What’s so funny ’bout peace, love, and understanding?
Thanks as always to Dana for attending this show with me, and thank you very much for reading.