A True Risk Taker

I’m tempted to salute Elvis Costello’s new album with The Roots Wise Up Ghost  as his latest reinvention, but that word’s too associated with Madonna—wrongly, I might add—or a meme, except I really don’t know what that word means.

Rather, Ghost is just the latest expansion in what has essentially been a two-pronged Costello career.

First, of course, is his bread and butter: his rock band side, initially with the Attractions, then after a change in bass players, with the Imposters, that began his recording career in 1977 and was rightly recognized in 2003 by his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Running in and out of it is his sometimes natural, sometimes radical departures from the rock band format, i.e., classical (The Juliet Letters, with the Brodsky Quartet), jazz (Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz Radio Broadcast), ballet (Il Sogno), classic pop (North), Burt Bacharach pop (Painted From Memory), country (Almost Blue) and now Roots music, that is, music created with the hip-hop/jazz Roots Band, with whom he’s been collaborating since an appearance on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon (and let’s not forget Costello’s own music/talk show, Spectacle, featuring guests ranging from Tony Bennett, with whom he’s recorded, and opera star Renee Fleming).

Both paths have yielded varying commercial results, though none of it ever comes across as anything that isn’t a full commitment artistically, no matter the risk. Indeed, Costello is one of the true risk takers that critics so often demand of great artists.

After touring internationally the last couple years or so with his Imposters-backed “The Revolver Tour” featuring “The Return of the Spectacular Spinning Songbook,” Costello’s creative restlessness was never more evident than at his performances last month in support of Wise Up Ghost.

His one-off show (due to the touring constraints of the Roots, who are the Fallon show’s house band) at the Brooklyn Bowl, followed by two appearances on Fallon, showed him facing an atypical challenge of working with a new band—in particular a highly rhythmic and adaptable, hard bopping 10-piece. So as challenging as writing Ghost must have been, playing it live meant Costello really had to be on his toes: As the Bowl’s founder Peter Shapiro keenly observed, the Imposters are able to follow their mercurial leader, whereas Costello had to keep up with the Roots, who really pushed him in a set that Roots drummer/frontman Questlove reverently called “the manifestation of a dream.”

Not that Costello couldn’t adjust. New album tunes like the horn-pushed “Wake Me Up” and the rapping, jazz-funk “Refuse to Be Saved” demonstrated his facility with incorporating spoken word or minimalist singing into the Roots’ vampy matrix. “Walk Us Uptown,” meanwhile, had a noir-ish feel reminiscent of “(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea,” which he also performed, along with Roots-reworked versions of “Pump It Up” (featuring a surprising insert of Georgie Fame’s lively 1965 hit “Yeh Yeh”), “Watching The Detectives” (with pulsating horns and a rap at the end) and a super-funky “Shabby Doll.”

Ever generous, Costello brought along his Wise Up Ghost guests Diane Birch and Marisol “La Marisoul” Hernandez to reprise their stellar roles. He also threw in a couple remarkable covers, John Lennon’s caustic solo classic “I Found Out” (evoking his role as Lennon substitute in writing hits with Paul McCartney) and, theme-appropriate “Ghost Town,” by English ska band the Specials, whose debut album he produced.

Costello joked about bowling a few frames after the show, and while he didn’t, it kept with his concept.

“It’s about having fun,” he said in the dressing room. “Isn’t it?”

It certainly was, in a dressing room full of friends and associates from both sides of his career.

Jim Bessman


comment closed

Copyright © 2013 M Music & Musicians Magazine ·