Monday, June 30, 2014

The Comedians

Elvis Costello's 38-song solo performance at Carnegie Hall last week (I saw the second of two nights - Jon Pareles reviewed the first in the Times) spanned his career and ranged from the biggest hits to the deepest cuts (and some that haven't even been cut). Among the most pleasant surprises for me was a performance of "The Comedians", which I first got to know via Roy Orbison's recording on Mystery Girl. As Elvis details in his reissue liner notes for Goodbye Cruel World (where the song first appeared), "The Comedians" went through a few iterations, including the sort-of intriguing but not really memorable 5/4 arrangement on Cruel World, before being significantly and successfully re-tailored for Orbison with new words and changes. This "final", Orbisonian version of the song, which is what Elvis performed at Carnegie Hall, describes a man looking down from a Ferris wheel but has the drama of a highwire act, especially performed solo and live.

If "The Comedians" is a somewhat lesser-known item, "Tommy's Coming Home", from Costello's songwriting collaboration with Paul McCartney (which yielded another of the show's highlights, "So Like Candy"), is a full-blown rarity, having never been officially released or even performed live by either of its composers before this show. Despite only existing in bootleg form, Nora O'Connor and Robbie Fulks discovered it and worked up a really fine, beautifully harmonized version. With or without McCartney, I hope Elvis takes a crack at this one in the studio. Maybe he should call Nora O'Connor.

While the solo format put Elvis' talents as a singer and guitarist on display, the show was a forceful reminder to me of his deep and continuing achievements as a songwriter and the impossibility of dividing his work into anything like cohesive periods or phases. (I was also reminded that I need to update and revise this list.) He's written great songs in five different decades at this point and still seems very much engaged in the work. As if to illustrate that point, he's named this solo tour for a song, "The Last Year of My Youth", that he's still in the process of revising.  

The Selected Ballads will be back soon with a roundup of some of the many, many albums I've acquired in the last few months and maybe some notes on other recent shows.

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