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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Elvis Costello promotes peace in concert

Elvis Costello & The Imposters perform "What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding" at Forest Hills Stadium on July 24, 2019.

All due respect to the Rolling Stones, but there’s no greater rock ‘n’ roll band in the world than Elvis Costello & The Imposters (omni-keyboardist Steve Nieve, bassist Davey Farragher and “the one and only” Pete Thomas on drums).

Currently out on a tour entitled Just Trust (the name answers, per Costello’s website, inevitable fan questions like “Will they play my favorite song?” or “Are they going to frighten the horses with a lot of excellent songs that are rarely performed?”), the band, augmented once again by stellar backup singers Kitten Kuroi and Briana Lee, showed why Oct. 30 at The Capitol Theater in Port Chester, N.Y.—the second of two consecutive SRO nights at the venerable venue.

The set was weighted to classic Costello and included “Green Shirt,” “Clubland” and “Motel Matches”--always a vocal tour de force that requires exacting precision and puts his extraordinary prowess as a pop singer upfront. On the more recent tip, he performed his “Burnt Sugar is So Bitter” co-write with Carole King from last year’s acclaimed album Look Now, and “A Face in the Crowd,” from his upcoming theatrical effort based on the Bud Schulberg short story that also spawned the Andy Griffith movie.

Of course he did the must-do “Alison,” which has become a showpiece for him and his adoring and adorable backup singers, and “Watching the Detectives,” which as in the last couple tours, was augmented visually by the lurid English, French and Italian film noir movie poster imagery, fast-moving upon three big projection screens hanging above the band.

The striking set-up was employed throughout the set, with another notable demonstration accompanying “This Year’s Girl,” from Costello’s 1978 second album This Year’s Model. Here the quick-cutting graphic consisted of cartoonish representations of the album’s arresting cover photo of a confrontational Costello, standing behind a still camera on a tripod aimed at the cover’s holder and essentially taking his/her portrait. The pose was lifted from a movie poster for the 1966 Antonioni masterpiece Blow-Up, and Costello played on it by cleverly substituting a caricature of David Hemmings, who played the film’s fashion photographer, on a couple of the images; another one showed Debbie Harry in a nod to last summer’s concert pairing of Costello/Imposters with fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Fame act Blondie.

But the dizzying pictorial manipulations—sort of a digitally achieved post-impressionist cross of Warhol with Van Gogh—was most impactful on Costello’s traditional concert-closer, Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding.” Said by Lowe to have been originally intended as a joke song, Costello long ago made it into a stirring peace anthem; in concert now, he graces it with artwork evoking that of England’s innovative graphic artist Barny Bubbles’ for his third album Armed Forces (the U.S. version of the 1979 release ended with the song), emphatically including the anti-military directive “Don’t Join.”

Other slogans slugged upon the screens included “Don’t Kill,” “Make love…You know the rest,” and “Pay attention—Stop the adoration of the warrior class.” Many were dramatically spread out over the three screens, like “Missing…Presumed…Dead,” and “Kill…Kill…Kill”—which gave way to “Thou Shalt Not Kill.”

Non-text images included one featuring lightning sundering the U.S. and U.K. flags like swords, and a hammer-and-sickle superimposed upon Old Glory.

But the most powerful pictures, perhaps, were those of young World War I soldiers. One vintage photo happened to show Costello’s grandfather Pat McManus—then a boy bugle player—the other, his grandfather Jim Ablett, who was a prisoner-of-war. Refocusing on the musicians, Kuroi and Lee have incorporated two-handed peace signs into the “What’s so funny ‘bout peace, love and understanding” chorus, driving the message of the song home with a flourish.

Costello’s loyal crowd tends to know his vast repertoire inside out. Pacifism having long been one of his central tenets, no doubt many remembered how he ended his stint subbing for David Letterman on Late Show in 2003 when the host was recovering from an eye infection.

It was a week before the start of the Iraq War, and Costello closed, simply, with three words that would fit in well with the others projected above him: “Let peace prevail.”



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