Tag Archives: Bruce Thomas

Elvis (Costello) Is King

As I walk through
this wicked world
searching for light in the darkness of insanity
I ask myself
is all hope gone?
Is there only pain and hatred and misery?
And each time I feel like this inside, there’s one thing I wanna know
What’s so funny about peace love and understanding?

Nick Lowe wrote it, and in the 1970s, to boot. But it’s Elvis’ song. And it should be our goddamned National Anthem.

My friend Bill has seen Elvis Costello live about twenty times over the years. After witnessing his three-hour performance at Rochester’s Jazz Festival (yes, I know…) earlier this month, he proclaimed it the finest show he had ever seen Elvis perform…ever. I do not take comments like that from Bill lightly; he’s not prone to hyperbole.

I missed that show; by the time I was available to get seats there were a few nosebleeders left for $95 (plus Ticketbastard charges), and $250 seemed a bit steep. Fortunately I discovered that two short weeks later he was performing in a beautiful outdoor setting at the Buffalo Harbor…for ten dollars. That’s like time-travel prices, folks! It’s also a magnificent place to see a show; I saw Crowded House there last summer.

There were two openers as the sun set over the water. A game Mark Norris and the Backpeddlers did their best and sported some catchy songs, albeit monitor troubles were likely the cause of some flat vocals. Then Shilpa Ray & Her Happy Hookers came on – great band instrumentally, great concept and even very entertaining on occasion…like when lead singer Shilpa didn’t howl like a banshee impaled on a fiery pole.

With curfew, I knew Elvis now had only two hours, not three. But damned if he didn’t hit the stage en fuegofive straight classics without a breath between them – and wrung every second of time for all it was worth without so much as a momentary lapse of energy. I wish every young band who think they are the shit could watch and learn how to create, sustain and leverage momentum. This was a master class.

The band was phenomenal. Consider that had Bruce Thomas not left the fold for personal reasons, this was the same quartet that changed lives thirty-five years ago. But Davey Faragher – veteran of Cracker, John Hiatt and others – has been the perfect foil for Elvis both musically and vocally for years. And while the other two might not sit atop people’s lists of best drummer and best keyboard player, I cannot think of anyone else manning those chairs better.

Pete Thomas is still a dynamo of hands and feet, as steadily adept and pulsating as he was when The Attractions were at their peak. Unassuming but rock solid, he and Faragher are telepathic.

And Steve Nieve – is that the greatest rock’n’roll name ever? Not only was his mad scientist act on banks of keyboards as good as ever, but I have never seen anyone play a theremin with such impeccable pitch and control.

Elvis is no spring chicken, but someone forgot to tell him. His vocals were superb, whether artfully crooning “Shipbuilding” or spitting out the fast paced venom of “Mystery Dance” and “Radio Radio“. He paced the stage restlessly, played guitar god whenever the Gibsons were strapped around his neck, and damned if he didn’t do a little dancing, too.

The set list tilted heavily to the early years, but some of the obvious crowd-pleasers (“Oliver’s Army”, “No Action“) were skipped in favor of deeper dives like “Green Shirt” and “Clubland“. He even threw in spirited covers of  “Heart Of The City” and “Substitute” pleasing the old guard among us.

He did finally pull out “Alison“, and as couples hugged and swayed and the crowd sang along I couldn’t help wondering if he felt compelled to play it just because it was such a touchstone. But as he headed for the home stretch, the band’s volume ebbed and flowed as he stepped to the microphone and started to weave in other artist’s lyrics as if they were simply bonus verses. Hank Williams. Jimi Hendrix. Smokey Robinson. Not covering the songs, mind you – weaving them into his own melody and chord changes, and each fit like hand in glove. With dignity and subtlety the man was giving a goddamned rock history lesson from the pulpit, and we were renewed in our faith.

And as he wailed about infidelity to draw the song to its conclusion, and thousands of people already on their feet tried to stand even taller in appreciation, he lit off the cherrybomb that has become his signature song, and we were all one explosive beacon in one of rock’s finest moments.

So where are the strong?
And who are the trusted?
And where is the harmony, sweet harmony?

Right here, Elvis. Forever and always.

Elvis Costello

The Buffalo set list will eventually be here.

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T.G.I.F. – Ten Classic Costello Cuts

As I mentioned on his birthday earlier this week, Elvis Costello entered my life with a bag and has hung around ever since. I do admit that I find his earlier work superior, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised at his transcendence from faux angry young man to elder statesman. Not that I don’t punch a hole through the ceiling anytime I hear “Radio Radio“…

And for a man who once called Ray Charles a “blind ignorant nigger” in a drunken stupor, I think his track record has borne out that he’s a musical historian who is truly color blind.

As with many good artists, listing ten great songs – or even albums for some – is going to leave something out. But these weekly lists aren’t meant to be the definitive inclusive barometers of taste. Sometimes they’re just ten great things. Today, that is most certainly the case.

Listen to a wealth of Elvis Costello clips here.

So as you prepare to enjoy your weekend, may I offer Ten Classic Costello Cuts for your dining and dancing pleasure? And my God, if you have any doubt that Elvis is King, please play clip number one…

01) “What’s So Funny ’bout Peace Love and Understanding?”  Seeing double lately?

02) “High FidelitySome things you never get used to

03) “No ActionEvery time I phone you I just want to put you down

04) “Everyday I Write The BookWhen your dreamboat turns out to be a footnote.

05) “I Can’t Stand Up For Falling DownThe vow that we made, you broke it in two.

06) “Pump It Up”  She’s been a bad girl, she’s like a chemical

07) “Oliver’s ArmyNo there’s no danger, it’s a professional career

08) “Watching The DetectivesShe looks so good that he gets down and begs

09) “VeronicaDid you wake from your dream with a wolf at the door

10) “Alison”…segueing into “Suspicious Minds“! I heard you let that little friend of mine take off your party dress

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Happy Birthday, Elvis Costello

Miracle Man.

Today we celebrate the birthday of one Declan MacManus, better known to the world as Elvis Costello, among other aliases over the years. Bursting onto the scene with what is arguably the best ever 1-2-3 punch of albums (My Aim Is True, This Year’s Model and Armed Forces), Elvis quickly grabbed your attention with short catchy songs, a rapier wit and his secret weapon, The Attractions.

For as good as this sneering, scrawny Buddy Holly caricature was – and he was great – Steve Nieve on keys, Bruce Thomas on bass and Pete Thomas (no relation) on drums were as formidable a rock band as you could hope for. They weren’t as spacial as The Police would become, nor were they thunderous like the then-still powerful Who, but they were so tight you couldn’t slip an ant’s ass hair through them.

But before Elvis Costello and The Attractions became one, it all started with an iconic debut; tracks laid down with session musicians who weren’t initially credited, total recording time adding up to less than one day.

People listen to records differently these days, especially if they are digital downloads. No tactile sensation of an album cover, liner notes, lyric sheets. Earbuds instead of walls of speakers. Sigh.

I remember the day my friend Phil showed up at my house with My Aim Is True; import version, of course. My roommate Larry and another friend were already hanging in the living room, music on as always. We had heard about the album coming out that day and planned to go grab it in a couple of hours. Phil was no procrastinator; he snagged it and came over where he knew there would be other willing participants to share the magic with. (Yet another earbud problem – isolation instead of the communal experience).

It was astonishing.

Two of the songs didn’t even hit the two-minute mark. The opening rocker “Welcome To The Working Week” somehow jammed a boatload of hooks, wry lyrics and choruses into a minute in a half; “Mystery Dance” sputtered and tumbled much like the clumsy lover the narrative depicted. There was fury and sarcasm, and there was great wit and wordplay, and the band (preAttractions musicians from Clover and The Rumour, among others) snapped everything to attention.

And maybe it was because it stood out with its winsome melody and broken heart, but “Alison” was an instant classic. The chink in the armor was there for all to see; this snarling wise-ass had feelings after all. When not long after I heard him nail this live it sent chills up my spine.

We were gobsmacked; I can’t tell you how many times we played this album over and over and over that day. It was all we would talk about with friends for days after, and whenever someone came over that album would come out and they would get indoctrinated. Not long afterwards some friends in a band worked up three of his songs so that I could duck out from tending bar and play lead singer for ten minutes. (We were the first Syracuse band to play Elvis Costello songs, and yes, I’m proud of that!)

Of course, Costello continued to floor us with one great album after another, and thanks to him and Rockpile and Graham Parker and Joe Jackson there was a new, fresh volley of literate songwriters serving up an alchemic stew of influences and flushing the distaste of disco and flaccid pop out of our ears. 

The trend wouldn’t last of course – none do – but the music proved timeless. On Friday I’ll celebrate Costello’s career with an Elvis-themed TGIF.

And yes, I know that today is also the birthday of Gene Simmons, Ruby Keeler, Tim Burton, Rob Halford, Wayne Shorter, Walt Kelly (Pogo), Regis Philbin and several others…as well as the tenth anniversary of Jack Nitzsche‘s death and the first for Ted Kennedy. But today, I must honor the Elvis who has been a part of my musical life for over three decades.

No offense, Mr. Presley.

Elvis Costello  wiki page

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Today also marks the 35th anniversary of Born To Run, when a talented performer, a crack band, a savvy manager and an all-too-eager mainstream press joined hands to crown the new King of rock and roll. Bruce Springsteen has since earned every jewel in that crown and then some, but it’s yet another reminder of how fractured the entertainment industry has become. It’s no longer possible to make the stars align on that kind of scale, and with very few exceptions, those things never happened organically.

But that can’t and won’t tarnish the memory of a time when it seemed like a blue-collar bar room rocker grabbed the brass ring and pulled down the whole damned curtain with it. Rock concerts would never be the same.

Could that really have been thirty-five years ago?

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Blast From The Past: Tonio K

It's great - no bull!

I will never understand how great records can go unheard… 

I guess when it comes to Tonio K., I can almost extend that to great catalogues of records. For despite initial kudos out of the box for Life In The Foodchain and pockets of critical acclaim bordering on cult worship, the man remains a virtual unknown and is seldom mentioned when people discuss great songwriters and favorite albums. To give you an idea of the breadth of his career, he was a member of The Crickets (as in Buddy Holly, although well post-Buddy) and collaborated with Burt Bacharach on his 2005 Grammy winning effort. He turns sixty this year, which is still young pup status for someone with his pedigree. 

When Foodchain was released in 1978, it exploded off the radio, standing out even though the post-disco mid-punk era was in full chaotic bloom. The music was great, the lyrics both hysterical and deep, and it remains one of the most auspicious debut albums of the rock era. I’ll save the dissertation of his career and its impact upon me for another day; there is not enough room to discuss it in one bite. Let’s just say that the public missed the boat on this one big time, and even my hopeful plea contained in my review over a decade ago (below) fell on deaf ears. 

Had Ole’ been released when it was supposed to have been, who knows what might have happened? Maybe he would have finally gotten that well-deserved acclaim. Maybe he would have disappeared again. I haven’t heard very much about or from Tonio K. recently (even his MySpace page hasn’t been updated in almost two years)  and reportedly he’s done with performing and trying to play the artist game. But I won’t count the man out, ever. And if he is done, well…he’s laid down a hell of a gauntlet. 

Check out his entire discography. If you don’t own everything he’s ever recorded, you now have a to-do list

Here’s my review of Ole’ from Pop Culture Press 

 

Thank God! One of the more critical “oh-that-won’t-sell-let’s-shelve-it” mistakes of 1990 finally has closure, and people can get a chance to hear what die-hards with secret taped copies have been crowing about for a decade. 

Tonio K (Steve Krikorian) first burst onto the rock scene in the late 1970s with the caustic and brilliant “Life in the Foodchain,” a concept record from Hell that mixed witty and insightful social commentary with blistering rock and roll. Although “Amerika,” the followup, contained more great music, Tonio K was no longer the flavor of the month and sales dipped. He released a great EP called “La Bomba” (not yet re-released) and then later a pair of majestic records for What/A&M in the mid-1980s that were chock full of great songs but could find no home on radio. Then it seemed that he disappeared, surfacing occasionally as a collaborator with friend Charlie Sexton or supplying songs for soundtracks. Gigs were either infrequent or low profile, or probably both. 

What actually happened was a third record for A&M produced by T-Bone Burnett and featuring a hot band including organist Booker T. Jones (!!), ex-Attraction Bruce Thomas (bass) and T-Bone himself. Guests on the record included Peter Case, Warner Hodges (Jason & The Scorchers), Paul Westerberg and Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo. The music kicked ass, and as always, the lyrics were amazing. How could this record not get noticed? But some bean counter said “uhhno.”

But they wouldn’t release the tapes either, so this sat on a shelf and collected a mound of dust. Enter Mitch Cantor, fan and label owner, whose dogged persistence finally elicited some cooperation from saner heads, and eighteen months later you can finally hold this in your hands. 

So the big question is this÷does it hold up? Unequivocally, the answer is yes. Kicking off with the manic “Stop The Clock” (with a heart-attack guitar solo from Marc Ribot that has to be heard to be believed), the twelve cuts showcase both sides of Tonio K÷the intolerant cynic with the vocabulary to back it up, and the introspective social observer who is able to communicate about faith and hope in a valid and non-fanatical light. 

Rockers like “Time Steps Aside” and “Pardon Me For Living” are fresh and vital, and the acoustic numbers place even greater focus on his stellar lyrics. Topics of homelessness and child abuse in “Hey Lady” and “That Could Have Been Me” could have been rudimentary folk songs in the hands of a lesser artist, but here are first-rate work. And maybe it will take a lesser artist to have a hit record with “I’ll Remember You,” an absolute killer that, like most truly great songs, will never find its way onto the radio unless some hack like Celine Dion sings it. 

Video: We Walk On

Video: That Could Have Been Me

The liner notes by Tonio K are a great bonus, insightful and sometimes self-deprecating illuminations of the songs. Kudos to Gadfly Records for altruistically stepping up to the plate and re-releasing records by people like Andy Breckman and Tonio K simply because they deserve to be heard. No one thinks these are stadium-filling artists, but it’s obvious Tonio K has a lot more to say, and I don’t care whether it’s brand new or has eight years of dust on it. The man is a flat-out work of art, an essential artist, and deserving of a wider audience that he hopefully will now find. 

 Grab Ole’ from Gadfly Records or CD Baby 

Wiki up on Steve Krikorian, whydontcha? 

The unofficial homepage has tons of lyrics and information.

***

R.I.P. Allen Swift, a/k/a the voice of Simon Bar Sinister

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