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Concert Review: Elvis Costello Goes Baroque to the Future With ‘Imperial Bedroom’ Show

Elvis Costello and the Imposters
“The Imperial Bedroom and Other Chambers Tour”
Greek Theatre, Los Angeles
June 4

While the 50th anniversary of the release of The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” is making headlines, a slightly lesser hysteria is greeting the 35th anniversary of Elvis Costello’s “Imperial Bedroom” album, which the artist is celebrating with a tour themed around the 1982 release. If the two anniversaries are not being commemorated with quite the same level of publicity, they are not completely unrelated events. A kingly gig Sunday night at L.A.’s Greek Theatre offered cause to consider a little bit of shared DNA.

The singer was certainly indulging his Beatles fanboy side when he hired the engineer of “Sgt. Pepper,” Geoff Emerick, to produce “Imperial Bedroom.” (At Sunday’s concert, Costello also mentioned in passing running into Paul McCartney at the recording studio, a few years before they started writing songs together.) And just as the Beatles were putting their moptop side away once and for all with “Pepper,” Costello was making a break from his fast-and-furious beginnings and going for baroque with “Bedroom” — even if some of his followers, seemingly taking a cue from the Woody Allen fans who preferred the early, funny stuff, never completely got over favoring Elvis’ early, primitivist stuff. As Costello told the Greek crowd, he’d gone from making his first album in 24 hours to spending 12 weeks in the studio: “We thought, ‘Now we’re really living — we’ve hit the big time.’ We hired an orchestra for Steve to arrange for. We hired a harpsichord; we had no idea what to do with it. We bought an accordion, and none of us could play it, so it took three of us to wrestle it into submission.”

One big difference (well, among others): The Beatles basically gave up live performance so they could make albums like “Sgt. Pepper.” Costello had neither the luxury nor the inclination for that, so he had the burden of recreating the “Imperial” songs in concert — something that worked fine with the rockier numbers, like “Beyond Belief” and “Man Out of Time,” and also the easiest to strip down, “Almost Blue,” to name the three songs that have remained set staples. But a lot of others basically went unplayed for three and a half decades, and not just because of the difficulty of bringing an orchestra on the road or adding a harpsichordist to the Attractions, but probably also because so many of the album’s songs had him layering his own vocal lines atop one another in a way that’s impossible to duplicate live.

The beauty of an “Imperial Bedroom” tour for fans is that he’s had to find a way to do all those songs live. (Well, not “had to” — Costello is not one to be bound by the strict conventions of the full-album show, so he continues to omit “Boy With a Problem,” a song he has such a problem with that he’s apparently never done more than a lone verse of it in concert, ever. Why give in now?) The solution wasn’t to hire additional musicians — he was accompanied, as usual, by keyboardist Steve Nieve, drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Davey Faragher — but to add a pair of female background singers (Kitten Kuroi and Brianna Lee), something he tried and abandoned right after the 1983 “Punch the Clock” album and tour. These two are able to add, for instance, the rapid-fire iterations of “little fool, little fool” — in, obviously, “You Little Fool” — that Costello handled by himself via multi-tracking in ’82. And that addition alone makes all the “Bedroom” songs sound fuller, without the need to bring out any accordionists after all.

The backup singers also stick around for most of the non-“Bedroom” material, too (which, again, defying the norms of the full-album tour, is interspersed in the set amid the “Imperial” songs). They have the biggest impact on an encore of “Alison,” which Costello typically does solo nowadays, but which now has the women gathered around him at the front mic for a choral effect. They also bring a near-gospel touch to bigger finishes on some of the other numbers — like the opening “The Loved Ones,” with its repeated coda refrain of “P.P.S. I l-o-v-e y-o-u,” or the set-closing “Pidgin English,” which not coincidentally ends with the background singers reiterating “P.S., I love you.” Not every fan will cotton to suddenly hearing female voices on nearly every tune — some wags have wondered if he picked it up as a contagion when he toured with Steely Dan a couple years back — but it adds a warmer tone that most veteran Costello tourgoers will welcome as a different flavor.

Costello is resisting getting political this time around, as opposed to when he wrapped up a brief east coast wing of the tour last November at New York’s Beacon by pointedly opening those shows with the fascist-themed “Night Rally.” For this west coast resumption, he merely alluded to current events by quipping, “Every song we thought of singing tonight sounded like the beginning of a terrible satirical routine: ‘Waiting for the End of the World,’ ‘American Gangster Time,’ ‘Brilliant Mistake’ — and this one,” then launching into “Accidents Will Happen.” There seemed to be a significant sociopolitical undertow to the one new song he performed (and the only post-1986 number), “Go Tell (Your Quiet Sister),” although it was hard to tell for sure on a noisy first listen.

This “Imperial Bedroom” tour is the least frantic-feeling of all the tours Costello has done since he reconfigured his backup band the Attractions into the Imposters. In recent years they’ve played nearly relentless sets as if wanting to come off as the world’s most sophisticated garage band; on this one, there are more frequent moments where they settle for just sophisticated, due to the increased presence of mid-tempo album tracks like “Human Hands,” and maybe the civilizing influence of the women on stage.

The show still ends furiously enough, with the expected “Pump It Up” and “Peace, Love and Understanding,” and it’s hardly any worse for having a few more stately moments than usual. The “Imperial Bedroom” songs were all worth the wait to hear, in some cases, for the first time since the tour behind that album, recalling an especially fertile writing period in a studio where “you could look out into the center of London, down there into Oxford Circus, and see people coming home from work late at night when we were recording. You didn’t know whether they were heartbroken or happy and on their way to the greatest night of their life, and I tried to put some of those things in the songs.” Looking out into the Greek, he surely saw a whole lot of happy.

The “Imperial Bedroom” tour makes its way back eastward through July 25, including a stop at Central Park’s Summer Stage June 15.

Concert Review: Elvis Costello Goes Baroque to the Future With 'Imperial Bedroom' Show

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