By James Kelly
Throughout a 33-year career full of groundbreaking musical adventures, Elvis Costello has tried on many different hats. Some have been incredibly successful, such as the original “angry young man” persona whose first three albums are New Wave totems. The “crooner” years were a bit more erratic, ranging from the esoteric classics with the Brodsky Quartet to the dynamic and emotional collaboration with pop icon Burt Bacharach. Buried in these many guises was a brief stint as a Nashville cat, when Costello was “Almost Blue” and channeling George Jones. It wasn’t his best work, but it showed a deep and sincere respect for traditional country music.
Fast forward about 20 years from his last country endeavor, and Costello is now wearing a yellow straw fedora and playing a hybrid of bluegrass, country, and hillbilly music commonly referred to as “Americana.” With a band of the finest acoustic pickers in the world, their performance on Monday April 26 at Atlanta’s Tabernacle was a celebration of sound – soaked in Appalachian charm and so deeply American that even Costello’s English accent was virtually lost in the musical mix. Joined by singer songwriter Jim Lauderdale on rhythm guitar and harmony vocals, dobro master Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan on fiddle, and three other top-shelf musicians, Costello kicked off the night with an ode to the King himself – the iconic “Mystery Train”.
Working their way through selections from Costello’s most recent “Sacred, Profane, and Sugarcane” album and interspersing numerous unique covers, the band shined brightest in the jaw-dropping redone versions of Costello’s signature songs, turning “New Amsterdam” into an inspiring folk song, adding just enough gothic darkness to “The Delivery Man” to send shivers up your spine, and converting Costello’s pop tune “Every Day I Write The Book” into a slow and deeply emotional love ballad that left today’s “hot new country” in the dust with it’s witty wordplay and rich harmony vocals from Lauderdale and Douglas.
With so many highlights, the real surprises of the night were such rare jewels as the delightfully perfect bluegrass take on Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale,” a rollicking romp through the Grateful Dead’s “Friend Of The Devil,” which allowed Lauderdale to further show off his vocal skills, and the uptempo “Happy” by the Rolling Stones. And of course, in homage to Costello’s country idol, a sweet take of George Jones’ “Color Of The Blues.”
As he gradually and gracefully ages into a true ambassador of popular music, Costello seems totally comfortable in whatever niche he chooses to explore. The universality and power of his songs is seen in just how well they transform into different styles, a process which has been a staple of Costello’s shows for many years now. It is clear that he loves what he does, and his contagious joy is shared with his rabid fans. The insightful writer who once declared himself a “Brilliant Mistake” made no mistakes this time around, and he could easily be the next King of Americana.