Elvis Costello’s richly rewarding ‘Detour’ to Town Hall via Donald Trump

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(Elvis at Town Hall. Photo by Chalkie Davies)

The enduring image of Elvis Costello following his triumphant Detour concert Saturday night (Oct. 1) at Town Hall was of the beloved entertainer holding up a guitar like a trophy, as if he’d just magically pulled it out of his hat, or if he had been playing piano, standing up in proud acknowledgement of his SRO crowd’s standing ovation, as if he’d just pulled his intact head out of a lion’s mouth.

The Detour tour is sort of an extension of his Unfaithful music & Disappearing Ink book tour of last year, in which he retold stories from his memoir interspersed with related songs played on acoustic guitar. While most of it is again played solo on a dozen or so acoustic and electric guitars—except for the piano songs—he does bring out Larkin Poe’s Rebecca and Megan Lovell to back him effectively in the latter part of the show on vocals and guitar/mandolin and lapsteel respectively.

And like the Spectacular Spinning Songbook shows of 1986 and the recent Return of the Spectacular Spinning Songbook tours, Costello also employed a significant prop: a giant TV set, which programmed old Elvis photos, videos, artwork, even a fab clip of his dad Ross McManus, a trumpet player and big band singer, singing the Trini Lopez version of “If I Had a Hammer” with England’s Joe Loss Orchestra. For “Watching the Detectives,” the TV screened film noir movie posters, book jackets and even album covers behind him; “Everyday I Write the Book” was accompanied by a funny photo of young Elvis signing a notepad with a three-foot long pen.

Unfaithful Music was further evoked with autobiographical stories, like the one about first working with Allen Toussaint on the 1984 Yoko Ono tribute album Every Man Has a Woman–for which he produced Elvis’s contribution “Walking on Thin Ice,” then mysteriously said, “Elvis, will you help with the broccoli?” No, Elvis explained, it wasn’t some strange New Orleans musicians’ code, but a request to accompany him on a mission to pick up some actual broccoli.

Otherwise, the songs spanned Elvis’s career, high points including an especially powerful “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror” (at the piano), “Blame it on Cain” and “Nothing Clings Like Ivy” (both backed by Larkin Poe). He tossed in, too, “Little White Lies,” a 1930s pop standard covered by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, which he sang on a porch chair and into an enormous megaphone.

But several new songs from his current project, a musical version of A Face in the Crowd–the 1957 film about a charismatic hillbilly drifter who fraudulently becomes a national radio and TV sensation, which proved a career breakthrough for Andy Griffith–really stood out, most memorably “Blood and Hot Sauce,” and “American Mirror,” which sounds like it could be the show’s big “11 o’clock number.”

Another new piano song from the musical, maybe “Burn the Paper Down to Ash,” brought one of many references to Donald Trump.

“Speak the unspeakable and think the unthinkable–into the wee hours of the morning,” Elvis said in reference to Trump’s now infamous early morning tweetstorm of the day before, in which he attacked former Miss Universe Alicia Machado. Elvis also suggested that the central character of A Face in the Crowd was indeed the devil, and noted how the plot dealt with how he manages to exploit the media in peddling lies and “hooking up with politicians.”

For the record, Elvis first took on Trump at least as far back as 1986, when he did a bit about the “sin of Trump” during his first Spectacular Spinning Songbook shows on Broadway. When I saw him in concert with the Imposters in Madison, Wisconsin last summer, he made mention of “15 clowns and one big red one” in an aside about the Republican debates.

He ended traditionally at Town Hall with “(What’s So Funny ’bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” (with Larkin Poe), then encored appropriately with another new A Face in the Crowd song, “The Last Word.” Deeply knowledgeable Elvis fans would have recognized one poignant tribute on the big TV monitor: a photo of a smiling Milo Lewis, Elvis’s invaluable longtime production manager, who passed away unexpectedly earlier this year.

Concert Highlights–Shubha Mudgal and Bombay Jayashri at Town Hall, 5/31/14

Last week’s jugalbandi duet concert by legendary Indian female vocalists Shubha Mudgal  and Bombay Jayashri, presented by the South Asian Music and Arts Association (SAMAA), was simply mesmerizing.

It juxtaposed the two streams of Indian classical music: the North Indian Hindustani tradition espoused by Mudgal and the South Indian Carnatic version represented by Jayashri. Both streams followed the strictly formal raga modal format, but with differences in structure and instrumentation, i.e., the violin and mridangam drum intrinsic to the Carnatic (played at Town Hall by Embar S. Kannan and J Vaidyanthan, respectively—Kannan sitting cross-legged and cradling his violin upside-down vertically with the scroll resting on his ankle) and the harmonium and tabla drum of the Hindustani (Sudhir Nayak and Aneesh Pradhan).

But it was the two voices, of course, that carried the concert. The 30-minute ragas allowed dizzying technique by Mudgal, whose deep voice went with her voluminous presence, and Jayashri, a relative wisp who sang with airy lightness.

Mudgal actually joked about her weight when she introduced one of the final numbers as a “lighter” piece, something, she said, that wasn’t so easy for her to do as heavy as she is. But she was just being funny: The 10-minute tune, while different in its blues-like mode, was delivered effortlessly by both singers.

The contrasting voices carried over into gesture, with Mudgal’s hands seeming to draw out her notes, Jayashri’s gesticulating conversationally.

The evening’s opening raga stood out in evoking–unintentionally, no doubt–the Beatles’ “Within You Without You” in the violin/tabla break. Then the tabla and mridangam speeded up, the singers keeping pace before trading verses—each building upon the preceding.

Mudgal maintained a quavering vibrato through entire lines in a technical display comparable to Mariah Carey but without the showiness. Rather than trying to top it, Jayashri dipped beneath, repeating phrases and drawing a smile of appreciation from her equal—and matching applause from the audience.

This sense of friendly competition and collaboration was matched by the musicians. Another raga opened with an exchange of beautiful violin and harmonium solos before Kannan and Nayak riffed back-and-forth improvisations, then reached over and shook hands after so capably crossing the Carnatic/Hindustani musical border. It proceeded with Mudgal paired with tabla, Jayashri with mridangam, Mudgal and Jayashri alternating, harmonium and tabla alternating, violin and mridangam joining in.

It ended with the two drums and the harmonium, then the violin and tabla taking over while Mudgal and Jayashri followed each other phrase-by-phrase before giving way for a fabulous high-speed table and harmonium solo.

Then Mudgal smiled.

Concert Highlights–David Johansen at Town Hall, 4/25/14

David Johansen was rightly introduced as “the world’s foremost ethnomusicologist” at his opening set of the double-billed David Bromberg/David Johansen show Friday night at Town Hall, a pairing, incidentally, that came out of their performances last year at the memorial at the Cutting Room for Stanley Snadowsky, co-owner of The Bottom Line, at which the two Davids were beloved regulars.

Sure enough, in his 45-minute set with his longtime, incredibly versatile guitar accompanist Brian Koonin, Johansen covered as many stylistic bases as time would allow, starting with a raucous version of his debut solo album hit “Funky But Chic”—which he later covered in the second incarnation of his New York Dolls (on the 2011 Dancing Backward in High Heels album) and including a lovely bossa nova take of his second solo album’s Four Tops-sounding “Melody,” a pristine acoustic guitar interpretation of his first solo album’s centerpiece “Frenchette” and folk-blues songs from his Henry Smiths band period.

But the set’s centerpiece had to be the one song Johansen has yet to record.

“I’ve been holding on to it,” he deadpanned. “Brian has connections in the Streisand camp, and it should be recorded by someone like that. I’m waiting for Tom Jones, or when The Boss gets writer’s block and is going through a fallow period.”

Not to discount any of them, but no one surpasses Johansen as a singer—or songwriter. Co-written with Koonin, the tentatively titled “Wandering Spirit Prayer” is a contemplative song about life and death. He sang it at the Snadowsky memorial, and at Town Hall—and everywhere else I’ve heard him do it—everyone present held their breath so as not to miss a word, let alone Johansen’s extraordinarily detailed vocal performance.

He’s the foremost ethnomusicologist, all right, and an artist without peer. The audience stood reverently after his traditional closer, “Heart of Gold.”

Here’s “Wandering Spirit Prayer”: