Show Review: Elvis Costello and the Sugarcanes

by Jack Diablo
Last night I had the opportunity to watch one of the greatest musical performers of the past few decades. I’m speaking of course of Elvis Costello’s show at the Florida Theatre although it just as easily could have been in reference to My Morning Jacket at the St. Augustine Amphitheatre. Concert-goers faced a tough decision especially since both acts happened to be playing the most perfect venues in our area for what they were doing.

It was a last minute thing so I wasn’t sure exactly which side of Elvis we would see. It seems like every Costello album is with a different backing band, exploring a different genre of music. Since I work less than a block from the Florida Theatre I did notice the name of the band he was touring with this time, the Sugarcanes. I hadn’t been keeping up with his work lately so I assumed it had to be inspired by the music of Louisiana somehow. Not certain as to whether it would be swampy delta blues, zydeco or New Orleans jazz, I decided to just let it be a surprise.

One thing I was certain of though was that it would no doubt be a good show. Although I only recently developed the respect that I now have for the songwriter, it is one that goes pretty deep. Costello is one talented dude who is able to capture the essence of whatever genre he is currently obsessed with and create pop songs that transcend said style. From rock n roll to jazz to country, he’s done it all and by Grammy Award standards, mastered them as well with multiple wins and even more nominations. His music has a universal quality that just about anyone can appreciate. It’s the kind of music my father and I can agree on, which puts him on a very short list indeed.

And that’s the first thing you’ll notice at one of his concerts, the diversity of the crowd. Young people who appreciate timeless, well-made music such as myself mix with middle-aged soccer moms and dads and even a handful of white-haired seniors. Of course we all have our own versions of Elvis that we love best, mine of course being My Aim Is True Costello (shocker, I know). But even though I love him for his more rockin’ stuff I can still get down to his rootsier side, which is what this show was shaping up to be by the look of the instruments on stage.

A variety of string instruments were arranged on the stage but no drums in sight. Admittedly this development bummed me out a little as it meant there would little to no chance of any real rocking out. But it was at the Florida Theatre so it was just as well. Because there is no way to really rock out there anyway.

Venues like this one are always a little weird to me. I’m not used to them but naturally more accustomed to ones where it’s no big deal to spill things, get a little wild, etc. But when you’re at the Florida Theatre you get the feeling that you’d better behave yourself. First off, it’s really nice inside like being in a rich person’s home where you’re not allowed to touch anything. Then you have your assigned seat that you had better stay in or a little old lady with a flashlight who takes her ushering duties very seriously will drag you out by your earlobe. It takes away from the social aspect of attending a concert in my opinion but sometimes it’s a sacrifice worth making because of the stellar lights and sound. So being that it was an Elvis Costello show, I wasn’t that upset about the situation, especially in light of the no drums thing.

The other weird thing about shows like this one is how early and on time they start. It’s rare for a local show to even start before 10 or 11pm and it’s always at least an hour after the advertised start time. But very soon after 8pm, Elvis and the Sugarcanes filed out on stage and took up their instruments.

As they began playing I took a quick inventory of the band. There was Elvis on guitar, another guitar player, an accordion, double bass, mandolin, dobro and violin. Practically the only things missing were banjo and pedal steel, further suggesting a Louisiana-themed ensemble. To be honest my knowledge of Elvis Costello only goes as far as a handful of albums so I wasn’t sure if he would be playing all new stuff suited to the style of the band or adapting old tunes for the occasion. At least until he started playing a folked-out version of “Blame It On Cain.” Nothing seemed particularly Louisianian about the style but instead seemed more like generic folk to me. It was pretty cool to hear different interpretations of the songs I knew but since most of them are his more upbeat songs, it also felt like they were subdued and missing something. For “The Delivery Man,” Elvis pulled out an electric guitar. “Don’t get too excited,” he said. “It’s only got four strings. It’s only supposed to have four strings.” During the song he did some rad soloing but it seemed a little lost in the mix, like the volume could have been considerably higher over the other instruments. I felt the same about the accordion. There were times when I actively tried to pick it out and couldn’t do it. At one point during a violin solo, which along with the mandolin seemed to stick out above the others, it sounded really distorted like some of the speakers were blown. I’m no sound guy but something seemed not right. Other than that, the set was flawless and Elvis kept it entertaining.

There was one time early in the show when some drunk asshole started shouting between songs and received some angry shushing from the crowd. Even though it would be a stretch to call this particular performance a rock show, it still left the audience in that awkward state in terms of etiquette. You’re not really sure when it’s appropriate to stand or applaud and when you hear a familiar song, you find yourself wanting to sing along but the rhythm is different and it adds to the awkwardness. He was pretty good about engagin the crowd despite the subtle tension. On “Sulfur to Sugarcane” off his latest album there’s a line that goes, “every where I travel, the pretty girls call my name,” and when the crowd did not respond appropriately (by screaming “ELVIS!”), he pretended to clean out his ears before starting over and getting the proper response the second go-round. It wasn’t like a prima-donna thing but more of a joke and it went over pretty well. On “Angels Want to Wear My Red Shoes,” he was able to get a good call and response going even though the song was way more relaxed and subdued that the original version.

One thing that always throws me off about the guy is when I hear his real voice. The man can do amazing things with his vocals but it catches me off guard to hear his accent. It’s just that his music is so damn American that I have a hard time accepting the fact that he’s Irish.

Elvis ended the show with the two songs that everyone wanted to hear. His folky version of “Allison” was a prime example of what I was saying about wanting to sing along but you can’t because it’s just so different. I really dig that song and to me it’s the prime example of his ability to write songs that have such insight into the human condition. You can’t deny the man’s musical chops, but really it’s his story-telling abilities that make him such a legend. “Allison” isn’t a fast song to begin with so hearing it any way but the original way that I love so much can only be somewhat of a let-down for a guy like me but the finale of “(What’s So Funny Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” was pretty on point.

Even though it wasn’t the most rocking concert, it was still a really great experience. It’s pretty cool how just about any tour he does is going to be something new and different, even if it’s all the same old songs with a couple of new ones you don’t really care about. At least not yet anyway.