Sunday, September 27, 2009

Elvis Costello's Spectacle with Bruce Springsteen 9/25/09

Elvis Costello filmed the second season of his Sundance interview show Spectacle this past week at Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater, culminating in a Friday night session with Bruce Springsteen. Thanks to a generous giveaway via Springsteen fan site Backstreets, I was able to attend the taping with about on hundred other fans.

Due to the televised nature of the event, no pictures or video were permitted (not even crummy cell phone pictures), so until the show debuts in January these words will have to suffice.

The events kicked off with massive applause. Nothing unusual about that at a concert. The difference is, the audience was applauding for no one. Rather, the producers wanted to pre-tape applause of various volumes to use during transitions. The crew scampering around onstage must have thought they were the most popular stage hands ever.

When we were all but applauded out, Costello’s three-piece band the Imposters entered the stage (the audience mustered a bit more clapping). Brief introductory instructions from a producer preceded Elvis himself hitting the stage, thanking various people and giving the crowd a few last minute tips.

Things kicked off with an untelevised cover, as these recordings often do, to warm up the band and crowd. Costello has never publicly performed Bruce’s “Point Blank” before, but the distorted squall through one of the Boss’s lesser-known slow songs sounded like a concert staple. Costello made his guitar shriek and mode, wah-wahing for his life while his off-kilter voice twitched and jerked around the melody. Even the most hardcore Springsteen fan there had never heard this River tune sound so aggressive. It’s a crime this performance will not be aired.

Costello then introduced special guest Nils Lofgren of the E Street Band. He explained that his relationship with Nils predates his Bruce connection though; when Costello was performing covers in Liverpool bars he often played one of Lofgren’s original tunes as a crowd-pleaser. This was the point where Nils was touring with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers as his opening band, so Costello’s familiarity with his songs should be no surprise.

The song Costello used to sing was “Take You to the Movies,” a beautiful ballad that Lofgren dutifully performed with the Imposters while Costello stepped off. He wasn’t gone for long though, soon returning to lead the band (plus Nils) into “She’s the One.” The crowd had been warned that this was not a regular concert; things might stop and start. Stop they did here, as it took the band five or six attempts to get things running right.

When they did they knocked out a ramshackle version of the first verse before vamping while Elvis went into a beatnik rant by way of introduction to Bruce. His words came out a bit garbled in the theater, but a reference to the “Great Emperor of New Jersey” was made before the Boss himself quietly wandered out, applauding politely while the band finished the song.

Stools were set up center stage while Bruce and Elvis got comfortable. The ensuing interview covered Bruce’s early struggles, his sudden success with Born to Run, his songwriting process and transition into maturity, his kids’ musical taste (the Gaslight Anthem and Against Me!) and everything in between. The program took four hours after all.

The first bit of music performed by Bruce was his early rarity “Wild Billy’s Circus Story” by special request from Elvis. Bruce talked about the fear he had of carnivals as a kid and his constant desire to see behind the scenes, under the ringmaster’s clothes so to speak. Nils and Bruce’s pianist Roy Bitten joined him for the acoustic performance (the latter on carnival accordion). I was expecting old standbys like “Thunder Road” or “Born in the U.S.A.” to dominate the evening, but most of the performances were rarities.

Things then turned political, Costello inquiring about the public stoning that occurred when Springsteen wrote “American Skin (41 Shots)” about the brutal killing of. Police thought a condemnation of one action was a commendation on all of them, they freaked out, booed his concert, announced boycotts, etc. Stupid stuff. Springsteen’s acoustic performance was powerful and effective, the blaring choruses and pounding drums stripped away to a man telling a broken story.

The next performance didn’t need so much reworking. Costello talked about seeing Bruce on his solo Ghost of Tom Joad tour in ’96 (their past interactions were a frequent topic for reminiscence) and Springsteen performed “Galveston Bay” from that time with Bitten on spacey synth. “We gotta pick things up before this crowd kills themselves,” he joked after the second depressing tune in a row.

An impromptu jaunt through Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” did the trick, Costello and Bruce dueting up until the bridge, and which point Bruce forgot the chords. He didn’t forget about his stint singing on the Orbison tribute Black and White Night, for which Costello played rhythm guitar, claiming he actually gets asked about that performance more than any other (seems hard to believe). Costello said that was the best night of his life. A spontaneous verse of “The River” followed soon after, the audience groaning audibly when Bruce cut the performance short.

The common musical heritage discussion continued with a debate over whether Sam Moore of “Soul Man” singers Sam & Dave would have been a solo star. Mumbler Springsteen was at his most eloquent describing how the two needed each other so Sam’s voice could soar to the heavens while Dave’s stayed rooted in the dirt.

To prove his point, Bruce took Sam’s part while Elvis snagged Dave’s for “I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down” with the full ensemble. The two had just praised classic band leaders, but they both seemed a bit lost without their guitars, standing off to the side of the stage instead of taking the center and demonstrating the balls-out frontman power they had been praising. Still, the vocal delivery was knock-out, rousing the audience to a frenzy after two and a half hours.

Then: Intermission.

Part Two began with the comedy stylings of Springsteen. Clearly he’d been building up a baudy surplus in his normal all-ages shows, as for this all-ages crowd he let loose with a zinger so filthy it got audible gasps. I won’t go through the whole thing, but the punch line was, “You’ve been eating grass for the last ten minutes.” You can fill in the rest.

That proved an awkward segue to talk about Bruce’s romantic life. Costello praised his wife Patti Scialfa’s musical ability for what seemed a strangely long time until he put his music where his mouth was, covering her “Black Ladder” with Nils and Bruce accompanying. This show was as much about Elvis as Bruce, so he followed it up with a raw performance of Springsteen’s treacle-fest “Brilliant Disguise,” a voice ravaged after a week of performances adding a welcome grit to the sappy tune.

More chit-chat followed before the night wrapped up with three songs that would have been worth the trip along. The band came back out and kicked off the finale with “The Rising,” a concert staple that has been boring fans who’ve heard it way too often for years. With the Imposters backing though, this song rocked out in a brand-new way. The crowd rose to their feet and it has taken off as the go-to topic of discussion on Springsteen boards. Costello took backing vocals on this brash version of the hopeful hymn, leaving the audience floored. “Bruce needs to take the Imposters on tour,” the fan next to me muttered.

Recent concert staple “Seeds” solidified that claim. The E Street Band rocks this out as hard as they got, but the Imposters gave even the already balls-out tune even more kick. Bruce played for all his was worth, thrashing at his guitar like you’d never see him during his energy-storing performances, unleashing the hungry 18-year old still inside him.

The band vamped while Elvis did another introductory rant – he said they could wind up using this one to kick the show off – before blasting into “Radio Nowhere.” It rocked hard, like it always does, before getting an extra kick with a segue into Costello’s “Radio Radio” reminiscent of the classic Saturday Night Live fuck-up. Bruce clearly got a kick singing this one into the mic with Elvis.

Then, just like that, the lights went up and the band left the stage. Four hours after we had first sat down, the crowd stumbled out onto 125th St, exhausted and agape. The only question that remained: how in the world will an editor cut that down to an hour?


Gary said...

Great writeup! I've only today discovered your blog but after this shall be a regular viewer. I'm a massive Bruce and Elvis fan so wish I could have been there.

Pam said...

I was there the night before you for the taping with Richard Thompson, Allen Toussaint, Nick Lowe, and Levon Helm (and I swear I'm missing someone). What an amazing night. I'm very eager for this series to be aired; I gather it'll be December or January. Thanks for the post.