(Click on the above and go to the bottom right for a link to download a recording of the show.)
The Rococo Theatre opened in June of 1929. It was called the Stuart back then, after the Stuart Investment Company and thus indirectly after Charles Stuart, the company’s president. Based on his picture, he was a dashing-looking fellow with big ears and thinning hair. Opening night festivities featured speeches by the mayor as well as local business leaders and notables; a symphony of twenty-five instruments played a piece entitled “Orpheus” as overture to a “talking-singing feature, packed with haunting melodies.” The master of ceremonies was Don Pedro, the “Surprise Troubador,” whatever that means – the spelling, along with all this information, is taken straight from a vintage write-up for the show, currently framed on the walls in the Rococo’s basement a few feet from the men’s room. A contemporary advertisement in the Lincoln State Journal, hung beside it, extols the building’s “Italian Romanesque” architecture, which “display[s] a slight Moorish influence in its lines,” and gushes breathlessly about the backstage area, “equipped with the most modern dressing-room facilities.” These last include “excellent lighting and ventilation.” The architecture has been preserved, to some extent, in the Rococo’s modern-day appearance; whether the dressing rooms are still so well ventilated, I can’t say.
In short, the Rococo is an old-fashioned picture palace and vaudeville-style house. It seems unlikely ever to have been a go-to rock venue – if you want that, you have to hoof it down Interstate 80 to Omaha. It’s a place where folks have congregated for decades, for the sorts of programs the Rococo née Stuart has hosted since day one, evening diversions in a style that’s arguably a bit out of date nowadays – the kind built on a rich variety of music and comedy and drama, presented with relatively modest spectacle, a faint hint of the exotic, and a boatload of corny jokes. It’s a place for talking and singing. It provides the perfect atmosphere for haunting melodies. The troubado(u)rs who play there are tasked with surprising you. What you should expect is entertainment, and a full night thereof, with the performance expertly sequenced and paced; you should trust the entertainers to entertain you. After all, they’ve been excellently lit.
Five years ago today, at the Rococo, Elvis Costello played not-quite-the-first show on what would become “Detour.” No one knew it at the time – one wonders if even Costello suspected as much – but the tour would last for two years and take him all around the world. He would play shows in Taipei and Tokyo, in Basingstoke and Boise, in Zaragoza and Atlanta and Macau and Jonkoping. For now, it was taking a warm-up lap through the American heartland; only a show two nights earlier in Boulder preceded it. Boulder sadly went unrecorded, but Lincoln has been preserved, and it’s well worth the listen. Here’s “Detour” in its earliest incarnation, its basic structure perceptible but not yet perfected and its core stories and jokes already established – “I’m goin’ on de-tour”; five sad donkeys; “I’d like to introduce my special guest… It’s me!” – all of them told here in starker versions than we would grow used to, less ornamented and discursive, without the prolix details that would eventually render them downright baroque – rococo, if you will. Now, I’ve written at length about the nuts and bolts of how “Detour” worked, so I won’t go into that here, but it’s clear from this tape that Costello had his semi-autobiographical, non-chronological plan for it more or less in place from the get-go. He kicks things off with a classic, “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes,” to soften you up, then he whisks you back to the very beginning – the apprenticeship-era “Honky Tonk demos” would get a very welcome workout on this tour. He has a song designed to transition you from the relative innocence of those pre-fame songs into more sophisticated material from later in his career – here it’s “After The Fall,” which would eventually yield its place to “Church Underground” but this song sounds tremendous, a cynical widescreen portrait of decadence set off all the more by the sweet wryness of “Cheap Reward” preceding it. It deserved to stick around longer than it did, but at least we can hear it on this tape. He does the guitar set, then the piano set, then the seated set, then “Watching The Detectives.” He brings out opening act Larkin Poe to support him on some more raucous tunes. He throws in a New Basement Tapes number or two. He stands inside the giant TV.
Wait – what was that? Giant TV? The television served as a signal that something was up: the audience, walking into the theatre, was treated to a series of music videos screened on an enormous TV set built to fill the back of the uncurtained stage: “The Only Flame In Town”; “New Lace Sleeves”; “Oliver’s Army”; “…This Town.” There was sneering young Elvis, pigeon-toed on Waikiki Beach; here was don’t-give-a-fuck late-eighties Elvis, swerving recklessly as he drove a band of bunnies to a place where he was bound to get sand in his beard. “Now that you’ve heard all the hits,” Costello jokes before his first number, taking the stage once the video pre-show is over, “you can go home…” All this is to say, the stage setup was a mockup of a vintage TV, with dials and switches – it was, probably, the sort of TV on which Costello watched his dad sing with the Joe Loss Orchestra back in the sixties, now blown up large. Throughout much of the show a series of frankly-distracting snippets of lyrics would be projected onto it; the second encore would find its “screen,” a white drape onto which the images had been projected, dropping away and there Elvis would be standing, Jazzmaster in hand, inside the TV as if he was the only thing broadcasting on every channel. He was there to entertain; he was ready to play you a few of his most beloved hits – ones like “Alison” and “Pump It Up” that you hadn’t heard in the video segment at the evening’s top – and, for good measure, a cover of an old fifties novelty song called “TV Is The Thing (This Year).” That cover is wonderful, by the way.
Picture some of these things while you listen to the tape, because context makes an already-wonderful show more so. Know, as you would have known had you been there five years ago, sitting in the crowd, that this is an old-fashioned musical revue: its tunes are punctuated by groaners and schtick: the videos you’ve just missed were the modern-day equivalent of twenty-five instruments playing an overture; Costello’s crack about “hearing all the hits,” coming just before the most thrown-away opening of “Red Shoes” you’ll ever hear, is almost certainly the sort of thing Don Pedro regaled that opening-night crowd with back in ’29. This is your chance to spend an evening with a world-class raconteur, and one who knows exactly how to mix talking and singing. Costello’s stories about his dad singing “If I Had A Hammer” on the same stage as the Beatles back in 1963 lead into “Ghost Train,” a song about showbiz that’s set in a theater of the same vintage as the Rococo itself; Costello’s mid-set performance of “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home,” a song almost as old as the room he’s singing it in, suggests that EC might have spent his entire career, serving up single after single filled with tongue-twisting dollops of vitriol, trying to work his way back to the gorgeous simplicity of a Tin Pan Alley line like “arm in arm over meadow and farm, walkin’ my baby back home…” And this hardly exhausts the highlights: “Turpentine,” soon to be retired from the set, is harrowing; “Come The Meantimes” is a haymaker straight to the chin; “Lost On The River #12” is a great song even by Bob Dylan’s standards, which makes it all the more powerful to think that it was mostly written by Costello. This is a master entertainer who’s taking you through “I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down” and “45” and “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror,” as expertly-designed an emotional ride as you’ll ever find, which shows off vocal chops so strong the sequence single-handedly puts down any of the quibbles you hear sometimes lately about EC’s voice.
Sadly, the crowd didn’t quite know what to make of it, and you also get hints of that on the tape. The Lincoln crowd is chatty, calling out thank-yous and requests; a lot of folks were also a little discontented though that’s less in evidence from the recording. This show was not what they were expecting. These were sophisticated Nebraskans, dressed up and drunk, out for a night on the town; most of them didn’t know any of these songs, at least not until the inside-the-TV segment towards the end, and they weren’t much in the mood to be surprised. Not all of them fell short of being fans – I can personally vouch that there was one group of beefy men drinking gallons of gin, up front stage left, who bafflingly only wanted to hear “45,” and once Costello had played that song they adjourned to the bar in back. That’s weird, but hey, they’re fans, of a sort – no judgment. These were people who’d paid a lot more for their tickets than Lincolnites had to attend opening night eighty-plus years previous, and they grumbled some about it. One wonders what Charles Stuart would have thought of a program like this. It seems like the sort of thing he would have recognized – Stuart was an old-fashioned sort, and this was an old-fashioned sort of show – but then again, Stuart was a toff too. Maybe he would have demanded the familiar. Maybe he would have groused, via Twitter, if they’d had Twitter back then, the same way an unnamed modern-day audience member did later that night: “$150+ for tickets, drinks, parking & child sitter. Listening to Elvis play obscure songs for 2 hours. #Notpriceless #refundplease #NotAFan.” But Stuart, had he done that, would have missed the point. This was precisely the sort of show the theatre – his theatre, since after all it once bore his name – had been built for.
Perhaps, not paying $150+, but instead downloading the thing gratis, you can enjoy the show more for what it is. Do so, please. Revel in the chance to hear a show for the ages. Click on the link; I think you’ll dig it.
Buy the official Detour DVD.
Top photo by Charles Martin and used, I hope, with his blessing.