SXSW Day 1: Elvis Costello rules the day

Costello gives an extraordinary two-hour performance and reveals his equally extraordinary ego.

By Salon Staff
March 17, 2005 11:45PM (UTC)
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The plane to Austin, Texas, for the South by Southwest music festival was, naturally, completely full, a high percentage of the passengers sporting shaggy rock-star haircuts. A curious and somewhat clueless flight attendant chose to direct the question "Is there some sort of music event going on in Austin this week?" to an elderly gentleman just in front of me. "Oh, yes," the man responded enthusiastically, "the chamber orchestra is performing on Friday." Yup, just them and about a thousand other bands.

First on the agenda Wednesday, after an interminable registration process, was Bill Flanagan's public interview with Elvis Costello. Flanagan is the creator of VH1's "Behind the Music" and a big wheel in the industry. He was also a ponderous interviewer, slow to follow up and without a single question of substance. The first 15 minutes of the conversation were spent discussing how many different major labels Costello has recorded for, and in which years.

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Costello is as charming, witty and articulate as his songwriting would lead you to expect. He also has a rather extraordinary ego, which led him to say of bad reviews of his album "North" that "anyone reading them would just laugh at how idiotic they are," to comment that his band, the Attractions, "were the best musical group in '77 by a country mile," and to declare, in regard to the length and diversity of his career, "What I'm doing is unprecedented." The only times the conversation came to life were when Costello veered from Flanagan's questions to tell anecdotes about his encounters with David Bowie, Jerry Lee Lewis, George Jones and others. But these were inevitably followed by more useless questions: "Are there any of your records or songs that you just don't like?" (No.) "Is there anyone you're intimidated by?" (No.)

By contrast, Costello in concert, late Wednesday night, was anything but dull. The SXSW schedule is so jam-packed that compromises are necessary, and catching Costello's showcase meant missing not just Billy Idol, but also Sleater-Kinney, Peter Rowan, Jason Moran, the Wrens, American Music Club and many more. It also meant standing in line for 45 minutes before squeezing into La Zona Rosa, stuffed to capacity with 1,500 or so people. And it was so worth it. Costello and the Impostors put on a dazzling two-hour-plus, 30-song-plus show, a tour de force performance by one of the greatest rock bands in the world. They were lean, fast and powerful -- not a trace of age-related fatigue -- and they were also extraordinary tight.

It's amazing that the band can sound so tight even with the presence of a wild card like mad-scientist keyboardist Steve Nieve, who keeps up a steady barrage of fevered ornamentation and gloriously over-the-top flourishes. That they do is largely thanks to Pete Thomas, one of the great rock drummers of all time, with an amazing, jittery, ahead-of-the-beat feel -- it's as if he's always rushing, but by some strange trick of space/time relativity, staying perfectly in time.

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The Impostors played many of the songs from 2004's "The Delivery Man," Costello's best record in years, but they also ranged through that inexhaustible catalog of songs, playing hits like "Radio Radio," "Watching the Detectives," "Pump It Up" and "Peace, Love and Understanding," as well as more obscure gems like "Kinder Murder," "Clown Strike" and "Hurry Down Doomsday."

Even when the band played Costello hits from the '70s, the versions they played were often radically reimagined, and always performed with passion and ferocity and without pandering to the crowd. I was reminded of something Costello had said in his interview earlier in the day, that he was trying to make music without nostalgia. And it occurred to me that in all of his recent music, however bad some of it has been (and some of it has been very bad indeed), he's been succeeding at that not inconsiderable task. The only artists of comparable endurance and stature I could think of who have managed to keep their music so fiery, full of vitality and free of nostalgia, are Bob Dylan and Neil Young -- certainly rarefied company.

Also heard tonight: Blues legend Hubert Sumlin (free download: "Look What You've Done"), the longtime lead guitarist in Howlin' Wolf's band. Unfortunately he was backed by a lackluster band of blues wannabes, one of whom handled most of the vocal duties with a bland swagger, and the master's guitar was mixed far too low. I left after a few songs -- and later learned that Costello stopped by to sing a few songs with Sumlin at the end of the set.

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Veteran music journalist Michael Azerrad, author of "Our Band Could Be Your Life" and "Come As You Are" and current editor in chief of eMusic.com, has double-dared me to accept every free drink I'm offered this week. I feel obligated to accept, respectful as I am of my elders and betters, so prepare for some inebriated gonzo journalism in the coming days.


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