Elvis Costello's new album, "Secret, Profane & Sugarcane," which came out two weeks ago, was his highest debuting album in 30 years. The set, somewhat oddly, combines bluegrass tunes with a number of songs commissioned by the Royal Danish Opera about Hans Christian Anderson, and isn't likely to make it onto any Costello fan's list of the singer/songwriter's best efforts. However, it still proved to be wonderful fodder for his free concert Monday night at the Amoeba record store in Los Angeles.
Appearing in his second concert of the day--he started Monday with a similar show at Amoeba's San Francisco store--Costello delighted several hundred fans snaked inbetween the CD racks with a 10-song set, the vast majority of which was composed of the bluegrass portion of "Secret, Profane & Sugarcane."
By sporting a purple fedora, pink tie and sunglasses, Costello resembled Huggy Bear from "Starsky and Hutch" more than a bluegrass musician, but from the first note, there was no mistaking his love and understanding of the genre.
Costello opened with "Complicated Shadows," an often menacing sounding slab about misplaced justice. Accompanied by Jim Lauderdale on acoustic guitar and Mike Compton on mandolin, both of whom appear on the CD, Costello and co. created an unbelievably full, robust sound between the three musicians.
Costello was an amiable host, often telling short stories between songs. He introduced the jaunty "Crooked Line," co-written with the album's producer, T Bone Burnett, as "the only love song where I didn't leave myself and escape hatch in the third verse."
A highlight was the rollicking "Sulphur to Sugarcane," about "a reprehensible character, who goes around the country who has his hand where it shouldn't be," whether that be reaching for your wallet or on your "backside." The amusing song, which name checks cities and states across the U.S., sounded straight out of Randy Newman's canon, complete with a ragtime feel. Costello may be British, but with his encyclopedic musical knowledge and immense talent, he does true Americana better than almost anyone born on these shores.
Not every song worked well. While it's obviously impossible to disagree with the anti-slavery message of "Red Cotton," the tune ultimately sinks under its own heavy-handedness.
As if the songs from "Secret" weren't new enough to the audience (they aren't necessarily new to Costello, having been written over a period of the years), two of the performed tunes were brand new, according to Costello and yet to be recorded. The first, "Condemned Man," was a sinister, compelling tale about a convict's final days that had the high drama of a spaghetti western. The second, set closer "Five Small Words" was a clever, up-tempo number about deception that had the audience clapping along, especially as Costello seamlessly segued into Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away." Then, with a tip of his purple hat, he was gone.