161. The Other Side of Summer: Elvis Costello & the Imposters, Confederation Park, Ottawa Jazz Festival, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, Friday June 24, 2011, $40.
A relentless night-and-day-long downpour preceded the second evening of the 2011 Ottawa Jazz Festival starring Elvis Costello & the Imposters (Photo of the wristband passes by VA; the image is from the festival program booklet).When I last checked in with you, dear readers, I was leaving Robert Plant's opening night show of the 2011 Ottawa Jazz Festival in a downpour — one that railed on during the night, continuing in blistering successions throughout the entirety of Friday. Lightning flashed across coal black skies as sheets of rain accumulated in Arc-appropriate units of relentless precipitation, accessorized by thunder and chaperoned by a wind forceful enough to sweep one right off course.
Hey kids, who wants to go see an outdoor rock concert?!
Cublet and I had pre-arranged to meet after work in advance of this gig. If that arrangement hadn't been in place then I doubt we would have ended up seeing this show. We reckoned that since a plan had already been devised, we’d give it a whirl, killing some time over a nice Thai meal … and just see what transpired, acting in the moment. As we sat savouring dinner and sipping our wine, we watched the grim spectacle of non-stop rain hemorrhaging from above, smacking down everything and everyone in the saturated streets of the Ottawa Market area.Our prognosis for the show? Not a chance. We just couldn’t see it going forward under these conditions.
We left the restaurant at 8pm, walking outside to discover that the celestial faucet had abruptly been turned off. At least for now. Darkness still hovered above us, sternly daring us to wander over to Confederation Park to see if the gig might still be a go.
Miraculously, it was.
And damn it, what a great concert it turned out to be! We appreciated each moment, brollys at the ready, knowing that things could all go pear-shaped in an instance, bracing ourselves for the next cavalcade of wetness that would trigger our exit. Incredibly, it never came, so we never left.
Elvis Costello in Ottawa on the Jumbotron (Photo and effects by VA).I was vested in seeing Costello for two reasons: (1) It’s Elvis Costello!, and he’s usually excellent, and (2) I inadvertently started a concert-going ritual in my life wherein I see him exactly once per decade. I have already written about a frenetic 1978 concert and a definitive headlining slot at the 1980 Heatwave festival, while I have yet to scribble about the 1991 (with The Replacements opening) and 2003 performances I took in. Now, here in 2011, I stood proud, keeping the tradition alive in a gnarly field that was an overflowing sponge of grassy mud, concerned about the potential demise of my favourite pair of Rockport sandals whilst pondering whether or not trench foot still exists in our time, but standing proud nevertheless. Awwwww ….
I’d seen Mr. C and the Imposters (read: the Attractions with bass player Davey Faragher in place of Bruce Thomas who fell out with Costello many moons ago) outdoors in this same area of town during Bluesfest in 2002 back when that festival was held in and around these parts. That appearance took place under decidedly hotter, drier conditions. Tonight was decidedly the other side of summer.
“The Other Side of Summer” from MTV Unplugged, 1991.
While I enjoyed the set from that night, I was much more pumped up about seeing Elvis'n'crew this time around. I’ve been a fan since 1977 but admittedly have only liked bits and pieces of his post-1989 output. During that ‘77-‘89 time frame, Elvis was a constant visitor to my turntable/walkman/CD player, being one of my favourite artists from that period, his rich body of work always prime for enjoyment and re-examination.
Following his Warner Bros. debut at the end of the ‘80s with the all-star Spike, I went through a spell when I put him on decidedly less. I wrote in my piece on Bob Seger about going in and out of phases with artists and genres, and Costello certainly fell off my musical map to some degree after that time. That is, until I started writing this series. In doing so, I have revisited a lot of music that I hadn't heard in many years, and while researching and typing up my pieces on those two Costello appearances from ‘78 and ‘80, I fell completely back in love with his catalogue from his golden years, going out and buying a bunch of CD titles I had only owned in other formats. I’ve listened to more Elvis Costello during the past year than I have in the previous twenty.
Elvis Costello’s golden period, 1977-1989. I filled in a bunch of CD gaps over this past year while writing about EC for the My Life — In Concert! series, particularly re-obsessing over 1980’s Get Happy!! I'd forgotten I even had that Spike promotional double LP. (Photo by VA)
Arriving about 10 minutes before showtime, Cublet and I hung out, listening to some superbly-selected vintage ‘60s reaggae with what was an unsurprisingly much smaller crowd than the previous night’s sell out for Plant. No one could have predicted that the rain might suddenly end and so you can’t blame people for staying home. I am betting that the show probably sold well and that many would-be punters angrily sat on their tickets that night.
And, bless his cotton socks, there the bugger was, right on time with the Imposters at 8:30 sharp. EC and the band ripped into the proceedings 1978-era style with “Pump It Up” followed by Nick Lowe’s “Heart of the City” seguing into “Mystery Dance” and then “Everyday I Write the Book,” complete with Curtis Mayfield-style chicken scratch guitar. Cor blimey, they were punchy.
I somehow wasn’t quite expecting that they'd come out swinging the way they did, but was glad that's what I got it.
A be-suited and hatted Costello stopped for the first time of the night following that rapid-fire foursome of tunes, comically noting, “lovely weather we’re having. Although I’ve been living the last six years in B.C., so this is a sunny day to me,” before adding that “we’ll just play until the rain and thunder comes.” Remarkably, it never did.He last blew through these parts a few years back, getting “to play for 36 seconds opening for The Police,” this time returning to headliner status and promoting his 2010 release National Ransom. As with its predecessor, it reunites him with producer T-Bone Burnett (and also features Buddy Miller who had been on this very stage the night before with Plant). Burnett also produced one of Elvis’s high-water marks from the 1980s, the roots-based King of America from 1986: his first album containing songs credited to his real name, Declan MacManus. That album’s release was accompanied by the touring “Costello Show,” an ironic performance concept complete with go-go dancers and a spinning wheel of songs that made each night's set unique and unpredictable. Costello took the idea out of mothballs, resurrecting it for his current tour but, sadly, was not part of the set he played here in Ottawa.
Mind you, I guess I should employ that “sadly” sparingly as his two hour performance was largely exceptional, drawing from almost every stage of his career, careening through a variety of styles and moods.This being the Ottawa Jazz Festival, he took a number of jazzy turns in the mid-part of the set, notably with Brutal Youth’s “Clown Strike” and his own standard, “Almost Blue.” His vocals during this number were a little shaky, taking on a patina somewhat closer to Chet Baker’s fractured, haunting delivery than his own. In fact, there were times his voice was occasionally off during the earlier part of the show but that seemed to vanish as the set rolled along, with many of his strongest vocals appearing in the set’s second half.
Declan’s rootsier tendencies also received an airing via a rollicking, funky blues performance of his Allen Toussaint collaboration, “The River in Reverse” twinned with a cover of The Band’s/Dylan’s “This Wheel’s On Fire,” along with Ransom’s “Stations of the Cross” and the solo encore selections of “Jimmy Standing In the Rain” and “A Slow Drag with Josephine.” He was in particularly fine voice during these numbers, his sans groupe alter-ego's appearance on the stage preceded by his explaining that “Elvis is backstage putting on his spandex and lipstick” before launching into numbers that were “rock & roll as I imagined in 1836.”
“Rock & roll as I imagined in 1836”: National Ransom’s “A Slow Drag With Josephine” in L.A. in May.
Throughout the night, Costello delighted hard-core fans with all manner of obscure goodies such as Blood & Chocolate’s “Honey, Are You Straight or Are You Blind?” and three — count ‘em — three songs from Trust (“Strict Time,” “Clubland,” and a big personal fave, “New Lace Sleeves”). Another VA darling, Imperial Bedroom’s opening number “Beyond Belief,” was a surprise crowd favourite, earning copious “Hurrahs” from the assembled true believers (who else would venture out on such a night?!), ending with an unexpected, Sonic Youth-esque grindy tangent, charging smack into the aforementioned “Clubland” replete with shards of Thurston Moore/J. Mascis-esque guitar tones.
Declan and the boys ended the initial set of five encore numbers with a trio of some of his best-known early songs, “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea,” “Watching the Detectives,” and “Alison,” returning one last time for another six tunes under deeply merciful skies — and wearing a gold lamé jacket. “Elvis” indeed.The crowd had noticeably swelled over the course of the evening as the rain seemed to hold back, with the tenacious rewarded with some of the most impassioned performances of the evening. One of the disappointments for me is that he had played nothing from 1980’s Get Happy!!, an album I have especially re-obsessed over during the past year. Ergo, I was chuffed and then some as he delved into a slow, bluesy start to that LP’s cover of “I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down” that blasted into high gear mid-way through before charging right into “High Fidelity.” I was stoked!
I got the impression that EC was invested in really giving those who had made the effort to come out their money’s worth. He crammed in as many songs as he could, soldiering on with a surprise cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Out of Time.” I cheered when I heard him spit out “You don’t know what’s going on …” All that was left was a stomp through the night's second Nick Lowe composition, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding,” incorporating lyrics from The Who’s “The Kids Are Alright” ... and away he went.
One Month Earlier in L.A.: Blood & Chocolate’s “Next Time Round” — one he didn’t do in Ottawa — followed by his cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Out of Time,” the penultimate number of his Ottawa set.
While Costello is rarely off form, I would have to rate this as the best set I‘d seen him play since 1980. It goes without saying that I feel pretty damn lucky that we decided to stick it out and stay around. In other happy news, the sandals survived and trench foot was kept at bay.
So, does this mean I can’t see him for another nine years? If I do so again within the decade, will that unequivocally shift the equilibrium of the cosmos? I’ll deal with that existential dilemma if and when I have to.As for the weather, while I was more than pleased that the rain was a no-show, it still appeared as if that could change at any moment. Indeed, it started pissing down again shortly thereafter. How would this affect the next night’s set by k.d. lang and the Siss Boom Bang? You’ll have to come back and find out.
Robert and Elvis, down; k.d. and Pink Martini to go (from the 2011 Ottawa Jazz Festival program).
© 2011 VariousArtists