(Click on the above and go to the bottom right for a link to download a recording of the show. An mp3 version is available here.)
On this day in 2014, Elvis Costello was at the midpoint of his spring tour promoting what turned out to be his best record of the decade, Wise Up Ghost. (In an alternate universe, of course, there’s a double-album of Imposters versions of Face In The Crowd songs that probably tops it, but that’s another story.)
Wait, hold up – I should say this first: I’m gonna pepper this post with links to various ways you can buy Wise Up Ghost. If you don’t have the album, please click on any one of them to purchase it. Click on a couple, even, and purchase it twice. The live versions in the bootleg linked to above do not in any way supplant the original recordings. Buy, listen, then listen again. Wise Up Ghost is an exceptionally rewarding record.
Back to it: generally speaking, when someone says a show comes midway through a tour she usually means it’s either humming along, the kinks worked out and everything tight as a drum, or it’s lost its luster, with the slog of touring having taken its toll and the trip home still a long ways off. This Las Vegas show, though at the exact midpoint of the tour, is neither of those things – but then the tour was only three dates. Under consideration today is the second, the first of two Vegas shows after a one-off in the suburbs north of New York. Toss in a record-release performance the previous September in Brooklyn, and you’ve got the sum total of dates Costello played to promote this very great album: four.
Which seems odd.
It was probably just a matter of scheduling, that the promotion for Wise Up Ghost was so limited. The Roots, with whom Costello wrote and made the record, were and still are the house band for Jimmy Fallon’s TV show, which is taxing work and requires them to stay close to Manhattan. As this show winds up, you can hear guitarist Captain Kirk Douglas balk at audience calls for more songs by saying, “We have day jobs!” Indeed, the next night’s concert, the last of the tour, would find drummer Questlove discouraging Elvis from leading the crowd through an extra call-and-response in the encore, insisting they had to close up shop; he had to get to McCarran; he had a plane to catch. Meanwhile, on the EC side, a slew of Australia and New Zealand dates were on the books for April, at which incidentally the Imposters would wind up playing a bunch of Wise Up Ghost songs, because Costello was clearly and justly proud of them. All this is to say, March seemed to have provided a very small window, and into it Costello and the Roots squeezed an abbreviated “New York – Nevada” tour, as it’s called on the official poster.
The tour’s briefness meant that there was no time to polish things to a fine sheen. With a lesser band, that might be a problem; with this one, it just heightens things. You can hear a certain hesitancy in “Black And White World”; the horns sometimes come in where they shouldn’t, particularly during “Watching The Detectives”; “(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea” veers perilously close to going off the rails. Not to worry, though – they never tumble off the tightrope, and listening to this recording is a thrill. You can almost feel Questlove – it might also be Frank Knuckles, on additional percussion – discovering new rhythms in the runout to “Come The Meantimes,” while the mighty solo halfway through “I Want You” is Douglas stumbling into the terrible chasm at the center of that song and feeling desperately for the edges, only to find the darkness is infinite. Elvis sounds incredible here, on every number, yet every so often you feel him expecting the Roots to read him and to be as responsive as the Imposters, but this band works differently, and they miss his nudges – the end result is that everybody’s constantly on their toes. So, maybe this show isn’t without kinks, but at the same time not an ounce of luster has been lost – not that lusterlessness has ever been a problem for Costello-related projects. This is an outfit that could have played this set the rest of the year, easily, and only grown more engaged with the material each time out. It’s a bummer they didn’t.
Would Wise Up Ghost have sold more records, if they had? Tough to say. It’s a pretty uncompromising disc; in a way it wasn’t made for anybody except the artists. But dig it, guys: it’s an Elvis Costello record for Elvis Costello fans – the Roots, after all, are just like us! They established their bona fides when Costello appeared on Late Night and they suggested he play “High Fidelity” in an alternate arrangement only available on the 2003 Rhino/Edsel reissue of Get Happy!! (That performance, one of the all-time greats, is still available online; sadly, the Bruce Springsteen covers Elvis and the Roots did during a later appearance have slipped into internet limbo.) These musicians clearly work well together, a what a record they came up with when they finally sat down and wrote some songs: Wise Up Ghost contains jeremiads like “Walk Us Uptown,” reminiscent of “Less Than Zero” in their stridency and their cheek, as well as meditative sequels casual fans never asked for, like “Cinco Minutos Con Vos,” which turns “Shipbuilding” upside down and inside out. It does some violence – in the best possible way – to older Costello songs, yanking lyrics whole out of “Bedlam” and “Hurry Down Doomsday” and “She’s Pulling Out The Pin,” but it also does some very tender surgery on “Satellite” to produce “Tripwire,” which takes us into a derelict haunted house where the specter of “Peace, Love & Understanding” rocks us to sleep in a cobweb-covered bassinet. It’s almost unsettlingly personal when Costello serves up a description of a dementia ward on the title track, and with bonus track “The Puppet Has Cut His Strings,” loosely about his father’s death, it’s about as nakedly personal as I’ve ever heard him. Lest this all sound kind of weighty, rest assured it’s filled with in-jokes, too, as when producer Steven Mandel brings in Brent Fischer for sweeping orchestrations – certainly Questlove must have gotten a kick out of the idea that his new record would feature a guy who cut his teeth apprenticing at sessions for Prince’s Parade. And oh, I neglected to mention that some of the songs are just flat-out incredible, without antecedent in either catalogue. Listen to “Sugar Won’t Work” and tell me that’s not one of the best things either Elvis or the Roots have ever done.
On this recording, of course, the music goes straight over the heads of some. You’ll hear a gaggle of oblivious yammerers in the audience chat all the way through “Sugar Won’t Work” – but rest easy, it’s more funny than a distraction, because the sound here is really quite good, if a shade light on bass. This is one of those bootlegs that puts you smack in the middle of things, which is good and bad, but listen to it for what it is. You’re hearing this show with a Vegas crowd, after all, and they’re soused and eager to hook up with whoever’s left standing at night’s end. They do quiet down when Black Thought shows up, as they should, and they seem appropriately impressed by La Marisoul. We should give ’em a break, probably – they were attending a concert adjacent to a casino and inside a bowling alley. It’s perhaps appropriate, come to think, for a show promoting an odd record that doesn’t quite care who listens to it, that it’s taking place inside the Las Vegas outpost of a Brooklyn club filled with twentysomethings who are barely listening. Wise Up Ghost was an odd duck; its songs, tremendous themselves, sounded tremendous live. Fortunately there was tape rolling as EC and the Roots played them, on one of the few occasions they played them, and we can listen now. Download. You’ll like what you hear.
Buy Wise Up Ghost.