Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 26, 2007)
When an artist produces a couple dozen or so albums over a 30-year, Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame-worthy career, one might expect that performer to release a few live albums. Heck, 30 years into the Rolling Stones’ reign, they’d already put out five! However, Elvis Costello has bucked that trend and not released a single legitimate live album. Yeah, there was the promotional Live at the El Mocombo from 1978, and 1996 produced a collection of “unplugged” EP CDs with just Elvis and keyboardist Steve Nieve, but as of mid-2007, Costello has yet to give us an official album representation of his rock material.
That doesn’t mean one can’t find live Elvis on the market, however. Plenty of these tracks have emerged via B-sides and special edition CDs. In addition, some video products have revealed Costello’s stage performances. The first such release came in 1997 with Live: A Case for Song, a career-spanning set that matches Elvis with a number of other collaborators.
In terms of the tunes, they really do come from a long list of sources. 1978’s This Year’s Model offers “Pump It Up”, while 1980’s Get Happy!! produces “Temptation” and “Riot Act”. 1982’s Imperial Bedroom provides “Man Out of Time” and “Almost Blue”, and 1983’s Punch the Clock introduces “Shipbuilding” and “Pills and Soap”.
Moving ahead, we get “Indoor Fireworks” off of 1986’s King of America, and “Veronica” comes from 1989’s Spike. 1993’s classical Juliet Letters contributes “I Almost had a Weakness” and “The Birds Will Still Be Singing”. 1996’s then-current All This Useless Beauty presents the title tune, “Little Atoms”, “You Bowed Down”, “Why Can’t A Man Stand Alone”, “Complicated Shadows”, “It’s Time” and “I Want to Vanish”. Finally, Elvis covers the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” and also reworks himself with “Upon a Veil of Midnight Blue”, a song he gave to bluesman Charles Brown and “covers” here.
As for the collaborators, Elvis starts the night with the Attractions, his long-time backing band. They play for the first four songs – “Atoms”, “Pump”, “Stand” and “Down” – before we strip down to Costello/Nieve for “Temptation”, “Veronica”, and “Fireworks”. From there the Brodsky Quartet comes on for the classical portion of the evening. This set gives us their renditions of “Pills”, “Weakness”, “Birds”, “Knows”, “Veil”, “Blue”, “Beauty” and “Shipbuilding”, though the band expands as it progresses to encompass additional performers; the Attractions are back on the scene by “Beauty”. With “Riot Act”, we go back to just the Attractions and a more rock-oriented tone for the rest of the show.
I don’t know if I speak for other longtime Costello fans, but I felt a serious sense of relief when all the strings and horns finally left the stage. No, I don’t dislike all of those numbers, but I prefer Elvis in a simpler format. The Attractions remain his best collaborators, and the additional performers just make things unnecessarily complex.
And awfully pretentious to boot. Costello has never been one to hide his highfalutin side, and that comes out in spades during portions of Case. I’ve tried to give The Juliet Letters a shot, but I just can’t get past its contrived highbrow snootiness. The fact that Elvis delivers those tunes in a broad, almost cartoony manner doesn’t make them any more winning, and the classical take on “God Only Knows” lets down a great song.
At least the rest of the program works pretty well. Sure, it’d be nice to get a setlist less heavy with All This Useless Beauty material. That’s not a great album, though the tunes hold up acceptably well. I appreciate Elvis’s desire to keep his shows fresh, though, and not weigh them down with an overwhelming amount of oldies.
For casual fans, that might cause problems with Case. It omits the vast majority of Costello’s more popular tunes. Indeed, other than “Pump It Up” and “Veronica”, there’s not much onto which the non-diehard fan can glom. If you want a greatest hits set, you’ll not find it here. Personally, I don’t mind; I could go the rest of my life without hearing Elvis do “Allison” or “Watching the Detectives” again. The set does make the product less appealing to those without an intense interest in Costello’s work, though.
As for me, I think I qualify as a diehard, but I must admit Case leaves me a little cold. Maybe it’s my relative disenchantment with Beauty, which I like much less than Elvis’s other Nineties rock albums. Maybe the long stretch with the Brodsky’s et al that causes my lukewarm reaction.
Or maybe it’s just not that great a show. Honestly, I can’t find much about Case that I dislike, other than perhaps some of the classical pretensions. Unfortunately, I also can’t locate anything about it that genuinely makes it endearing or memorable. This is a decent to good concert from a great artist but it doesn’t stand out as anything better than that.