Why a gig featuring no hit songs whatsoever is heaven for Elvis Costello super-fans

On the eve of Valentine's Day, Elvis Costello feels the love at New York's Gramercy Theatre

Elvis Costello
(Image: © Hop5340 YouTube)

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The very idea seems absurd. That a world-class artist would play a gig during which he plays none of the songs for which he is best known by the casual listener seems perverse in the extreme. It’s like the Stones rolling up to perform a set absent of Gimme Shelter, Sympathy For The Devil, or (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction. It’s like paying a fortune to see Paul McCartney in the knowledge that he will not be taking a sad song to make it better.

But think again. Because on an unseasonably mild evening in Manhattan, the 600 people queuing at the entrance of the compact and lovely Gramercy Theatre have each joined a compact of the obscure. None of us is here to hear Accidents Will Happen, Pump It Up or Shipbuilding. ‘100 Songs and More’ is the wording on the ticket.  ‘Elvis Costello,’ announces the marquee on East 23rd St, ’10 Nights sold out’.

In case you were wondering, this is where obsessives go to die. “It’s the force of habit, if it moves then you fuck it, if it doesn’t move you stab it,” Costello sings in the second hour of his largely unaccompanied acoustic set. Five minutes later, Sleep Of The Just is succeeded by God’s Comic, in which no lesser personage than the great Creator ponders the very nature of His own existence. “Sometimes [the faithful] confuse me with Santa Claus,” He narrates, “It’s the big white beard, I suppose.” Under normal circumstances, even the most hardcore devotee could wait an age, and spend a fortune, in the hope of hearing a pairing such as this. But on the eve of Valentine’s Night, it’s merely par for the course. Tomorrow it will be much the same.

In which case, the key is to stay away from websites that disclose each evening’s set-list. For obsessives of Costello’s annus mirabilis, 1986, Friday evening saw the re-emergence of brilliance in the form of Sleep Of The Just, Battered Old Bird, Jack Of All Parades, and Little Palaces. Three nights later, the Monday night excavations include I Want To Vanish, from the scandalously under-appreciated All This Useless Beauty LP, from 1996; set-opener 45, from the album When I Was Cruel; and a medley of 2010’s masterful Jimmie Standing In The Rain with the American Great Depression classic Brother Can You Spare A Dime?, in which the Chicago of Al Capone is paired with the fading glory of George Formby’s Lancashire. Elsewhere, poetry flies by as if on the breeze. “Look at the graceful way she dances, one foot speaks the other answers,” Costello sings on Ghost Train, a song from 1980 that didn’t even make the parent album (Get Happy) from which it was born.  Just imagine having the imagination, and the talent, to let material such as this appear only on the rarest of occasions. 

Of course, the truth of it is that Elvis Costello could play for a month without once repeating himself. At a $125 a ticket, similarly, audience members could bankrupt themselves in the hope of hearing an obscure favourite. As a welcome to the working week, in Midtown Manhattan on a Monday night a roomful of obsessives is treated to gems that might otherwise be forgotten. Mr Feathers, as good a song as its author has written this century, nestles cheek-by-jowl with the timeless Black And White World. Because the truth of it is that one can have too much of a good thing. Without this most unusual of concert concepts, the chance is real that dozens of the songs performed over the course of 10 nights might never be played again. 

As evidence that music is the art of the immortal, Elvis Costello in Manhattan is hard to beat. Three nights previously, the world of song mourned the death of Burt Bacharach, the author of more standards than one can imagine, with whom Costello paired for 1998’s Painted From Memory LP. Three tracks in, the memory of the man’s genius is marked by an exquisitely-judged cover of Mexican Divorce. More than two hours later, Costello’s routinely remarkable evening is brought to a close by a more familiar rendition of a song written by Nick Lowe, yet another top-tier songwriter. Now, as then, its question remains pertinent: what’s so funny about peace, love and understanding?

Ian Winwood
Freelance Writer

Barnsley-born author and writer Ian Winwood contributes to The Telegraph, The Times, Alternative Press and Times Radio, and has written for Kerrang!, NME, Mojo, Q and Revolver, among others. His favourite albums are Elvis Costello's King Of America and Motorhead's No Sleep 'Til Hammersmith. His favourite books are Thomas Pynchon's Vineland and Paul Auster's Mr Vertigo. His own latest book, Bodies: Life and Death in Music, is out now on Faber & Faber and is described as "genuinely eye-popping" by The Guardian, "electrifying" by Kerrang! and "an essential read" by Classic Rock. He lives in Camden Town.