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

(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.

YouTube Discoveries: P.P. Arnold and Bonnie Owens

Thanks to my pal Chalkie Davies–the legendary photographer of 1970s/’80s U.K. rock musicians–for posting a video of The Faces’ hit “Tin Soldier” last week as a memorial tribute to keyboardist Ian McLagan.

“It doesn’t get better than this,” rightly testified Chalkie, whose comments on Mac made my appreciation piece for examiner.com read so well.

I’m posting the clip here, not just for Mac and the Small Faces—the band that became more famous in America as The Faces when Rod Stewart replaced Small Faces lead singer/guitarist Steve Marriott–but for P.P. Arnold, a former Ike & Tina Turner Ikette who was most successful in England in the 1960s, when she backed artists like the Small Faces and also had her own hits.

As incredibly charismatic as Marriott was, it’s hard to keep your eyes off Arnold in “Tin Soldier.” Restrained next to Marriott’s unbridled passion, Arnold is nevertheless mesmerizing: the way she gently smiles and dances off to the side and away from her mic, then comes in when it’s time to sing the chorus, reminds me of maybe the best backup singer I ever saw, Bonnie Owens.

Bonnie, who was married to Buck Owens and then Merle Haggard, stayed with Merle onstage after she divorced him and likewise stood behind him dancing and smiling—until it was time for her to sing harmony parts, “blurt harmonies,” as she called them when I told her how much I loved them.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a great example on YouTube that wasn’t part of a long concert tape. But here she is, late in the game, singing a classic Hagg hit next to him.

And here’s an example of Arnold’s solo work, on the original hit version of Cat Stevens’ “The First Cut is the Deepest”: