No matter how many Will Ferrell flicks or Stephen Colbert Christmas specials Elvis Costello turns up in, the circa 1978 image of him as the logorheic and self-immolating Angry Young Man endures.
But in the latter two-thirds of his wildly eclectic career, he's evolved into something more like the Martin Scorcese of music, as much a historian and curator as he is an original artist. Some would extend the Scorcese comparison to say that critics overpraise Elvis's latter-day stuff out of affection for the more direct (and popular) work he did in the '70s and '80s. (And those people are wrong.) But nobody could deny his generosity as a live performer.
Last night, as in several summers past, Costello indulged that curatorial impulse in an ingratiating and wide-ranging set at Wolf Trap. And as in the past, he brought along some very estimable backup. The retinue of roots-music ringers onstage included harmony singer/guitarist Jim Lauderdale, fiddler Stuart Duncan and dobro player Jerry Douglas. It's the same crew that plays on "Secret, Profane & Sugarcane," a disarmingly ramshackle slice of Americana that finds Elvis at his headiest and goosiest all at once.
Given that there were more chops onstage than in Jackie Chan's entire filmography, the show was surprisingly light on solos. Though the players had the dexterity and chemistry you'd expect, as a band they sometimes seemed too timid, as though determined not to upstage the songs.
They needn't have worried. These songs -- 31 of them -- hold their own. The 155-minute set included most of the new disc, naturally. But as usual with this Elvis, it was the game of which cover versions he'd attempt -- not to mention which oldies and oddities he'd resurrect from his own crazy-thick songbook -- that gave the evening a delightful air of surprise.
Case in point: The set included tunes by Hoagy Carmichael and Harold Adamson ("My Resistance Is Low"), Merle Haggard ("Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down") and Lou Reed ("Femme Fatale," in an arrangement decidedly more celebratory than the aching original). And that was just in the first half-dozen songs. Later, there would a be a dusty "Friend of the Devil." And the two songs Elvis wrote for Johnny Cash. And one he wrote with Loretta Lynn: "She came out with a big box labeled 'Songs,' so I knew she meant business," Costello reminisced with his usual dry pith.
Elvis, of course, is a songwriting heavyweight himself, and the vintage material he chose to adapt to the old-timey idiom came largely from his 1977 debut, "My Aim Is True," and from a prior full-on foray into roots, 1986's "King of America." Rarities? Check: "American Without Tears No. 2," which duplicates the original's melody but offers a sequel in the lyrics. Maybe only four people in the house could identify it, but Elvis had persuaded most of the lawn to sing along by the end. After that, getting them to sing "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" was a cinch.
--Chris Klimek, June 2009