This Afternoon: Elvis Costello at Amoeba

Categories: Last Night
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Elvis Costello and Jim Lauderdale
Monday, June 22, 2009
Amoeba Music

Better than:
Concerts you have to pay for.

Sure, it's finally feeling like summer in San Francisco today, but a good couple hundred people skipped work this morning for more reasons than just working on their tan. The line that stretched down to the McDonald's from Amoeba's doorway around 9:30 a.m. told of another rare visitor in the city today besides the sun: Elvis Costello was in town. Not only that, but he was here to play a free noontime show at the Haight St. record store. The concert was part of his one-day California tour (he plays the Hollywood Amoeba this evening), and we got to hear him first--before both Southern California and the hordes of autograph seekers got to him.

Despite the non-rock n roll hour and the bright retail lighting, Costello took the stage in high spirits. He joked to the crowd that his father once told him, "Someday son, your name could be in lights. You may even play the Amoeba store." Even with the quip, though, Costello's performance came off as a show, not shilling--although he was quite obviously there to help sell a new record. He offered a full 40 minutes of acoustic material off his latest, Secret, Profane, and Sugarcane. The new release is Costello's current stab at old timey/country music, and to help bring that point home, he had with him on stage a mandolin player (Mike Compton, in denim overalls) and accordion player Austin de Lone, as well as his main cohort, Jim Lauderdale on backing vocals and guitar.

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Secret is a storytelling album, and with the instrumentation stripped even further back from the record, you were able to revel in the scoundrels Costello has committed to song. There was "Red Cotton," the tale of P.T. Barnum looking back over his life, "thinking about the things he did to make a buck," as the songwriter explained. And another ditty he performed was about a "reprehensible character who always has his hands where they shouldn't be--in your purse or in your back pocket." He also played "Down Among the Wine and Spirits," a "cautionary tale from the world of show business." As if to prove he was on the righteous road of entertaining, Costello invited the crowd to fill in the caution-tape blocked off rows in front of him. Fans eagerly complied, flowing into the spaces by the stage with their cameras aloft. Standing in the "psych-prog" aisle, you were so close as to almost see Costello's eyes behind his gold-rimmed sunglasses, and you could faintly smell the scent of sweat and aftershave as the singer wiped his face of perspiration between songs.  

Although this was a freebie instore, Costello played a solid 40-minute set. Most of the material came off Secret, but he threw the crowd a bone with a new song that'll be on the next record he releases. That tune was a catchy little ghost story, with demented imagery of children being warned to say their prayers, firing squads, and a madman's "cold hearted cackle" visiting you through your dreams.

Even for that song, though, there was nothing threatening about Costello's set. The musicians sharing the stage looked just as pleased to be there as the main attraction, and the crowd stood in a hushed, polite awe except for a single shout of "Elvis!" and random, albeit quieter, yelps of loyalty. For all their fervent fandom in clapping and hooting at the beginning and the end of the show, when their idol asked the audience to sing along, the response was barely audible, his fans (who ranged from bleached-haired punks to parents and their grade school kids to balding older men) mostly staring at him with happy grins on their faces. This was the very non-witching lunchtime hour, and they were there for the intimate performance, a chance to focus on Costello--and perhaps get his signature on a CD later--not on their crazed, outspoken reactions to his songs.
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