Friday, September 12, 2008

Two former angry young men hash it out, with guests

There are only two recording artists in my life whom I’ve seen live more than twice, and they are Elvis Costello and Rufus Wainwright. I’ve performed Elvis’ “My Aim Is True”, “This Year’s Model” and “King Of America” in their entirety at various Manhattan venues and have seen Costello live six times since 1984’s “Punch The Clock” tour.

I’ve seen Rufus 5 times in the last year, including out of doors at Central Park Summerstage in a two-hour rainstorm, and have ingested his entire body of released original songs to the point where I have to be careful. As one prominent songwriter remarked, and I'm paraphrasing, "You try to write your own material after listening to Rufus and you think, 'Why bother?"

I therefore have some authority to say a few things about these two.

A new Sundance Channel show, "Spectacle: Elvis Costello with..." features Elvis and guests.

Mrs. M. wangled tickets for a taping featuring Wainwright and the opera star Renee Fleming. We gathered at the suprisingly tiny legendary Apollo theatre on West 125th Street to attend. We were 5 rows from the stage.

E.C. emerged.

Elvis Costello has morphed from an angry, obnoxious, snarling talent to grand elder statesman of popular music. Today, there isn’t a dangerous bone in his body and he’d make a great granddad, or at least a funny uncle. His dress was conservative; ill-fitting wrinkled black suit and absurd red felt fedora that deflated the taking of the proceedings too seriously---legendary Apollo, you know. (You can’t really type “Apollo” without the "L" word. It’s like leaving off the “Sir” in “Sir Paul” even though he deserves it rescinded for “Dance Tonight.”)

In Elvis’ tortured place, now, is Rufus Wainwright, who occupies, audience and respect-wise, the spot Elvis Costello did in 1980 before he began hanging out with Burt Bacharach, who in 1968 may not have accepted E.C.'s tea and songwriting invitation.

E.C. donned a Gibson Blues King Junior guitar at 7:15 and sang “All This Useless Beauty”, a song whose meaning remains a mystery to me ten years after its album of the same name was released. He followed “Beauty” with “If I Only Had A Brain”.

Rufus was announced and emerged, tall, tan, handsome, awkward, magnificent.

Elvis asked him questions about songwriting, about not hiding his sexuality, about his father, about certain songs. Wainwright is, like many musicians, not all that interesting when you hear him speak, but one is compelled to pay attention regardless because you want to comprehend the brain of the man who wrote "The Art Teacher". In the end, his words fall flat and you get no closer.

When ensconced behind a grand piano, though, a sound and energy emerges that’s otherworldy, godlike, mesmerizing. He is not as in pain as he was before his stint in rehab for crystal meth, but his (apparent) sobriety has not harmed his music or performance. He performed "Memphis Skyline" and another whose title escapes me.

Renee Fleming emerged and filled the Apollo with rounded, aching, soaring tones that caused the water to rain from my eyes, which is all I ever require from any performer--laughter, anger, tears. I wanted to dash onstage and give her a bear hug. She was also the more engaged live interview subject, deep yet perky, perfect but not annoyingly so, and compelling whether singing or talking.

The show had a few technical glitches, with the result that we were still sitting in our seats four hours after the proceedings had started. I started nodding, then grew sleepy to the point of agony, wishing for death or to be released from the theatre.

"History in the making!" cried Mrs. M. "Legendary theatre!" But still I wanted out as I’d been up since 6 AM and had biked 18 miles that morning. Rufus’ mother, Kate McGarrigle was announced and appeared with a banjo, and the onstage ensemble attempted an Appalachian-style number written by T. Bone Burnett and Elvis. Attempted is the word, for after two utterly sour takes aiming for 4-part harmony, each a disaster, the third try proved a semi-charm, and the evening was concluded.

Showbiz ain't for sissies.

And the next day I bought "Punch The Clock" on iTunes.


pantagruel said...

Hey Josh, good to see you're blogging again. I was looking for your Salon article to send to a friend, and thought I'd check out your website. I'm the woman who sat down and blew off work for a couple of hours to read through your old one. Which sounds… slightly stalkerish, sorry.

Take care!

CaptainBananas said...

Look who's stalking! Not a problem, Pantagruel. Cheerz