Elvis Costello Reinvents His Own Tour by Adding Horn Section: Review

It’s not many tours that take a complete left turn from the style, content and tone of how they started with just a few dates left on the itinerary before everyone heads home. That’s coasting time. Yet that’s exactly what happened with the final six shows on Elvis Costello & the Imposters’ “We’re All Going on a Summer Holiday Tour,” where no one who saw any of the first 17 gigs on the outing would have much recognized how things transpired in the final half-dozen. It was all due to the transformative presence of a three-man horn section, which the advertising had accurately promised would only be showing up for the tour coda. What was unexpected was just how thoroughly Costello retooled the whole show to build it around these new brass arrangements, discarding certain set staples and adding new ones to show just what different flavors could be realized with horns o’ plenty.

As a result of this severe tinkering, Costello’s sold-out show Wednesday at New York City’s Beacon Theater (the first of two nights there) was one of the most intricate and exciting we’ve seen him do with the Imposters since he formed that band in the wake of the Attractions a couple of decades ago, with a temporarily expanded lineup that could be described as Imposters+. It was a dream show, in many ways, with the singer announcing right at the outset that everyone should settle in quickly because they shouldn’t dawdle in settling into a one-of-a-kind gig. (Six-of-a-kind? Close enough.) If the constant appropriation of tenor sax, trumpet and trombone don’t make you horny, you might’ve felt differently. But it was well worth it to sacrifice a little of the rock ‘n’ roll fire of earlier parts of the tour — not all, a little — in favor of a less predictable roller coaster ride that engineered deep soul and jazz elements into its most delirious hairpin turns.

Only one of the 23 songs performed over the show’s two hours and 15 minutes didn’t make any use of the horn section at all. That one, played nearly at the end of the night, seemed to have been called by Costello as an audible. It was “Blood and Hot Sauce,” a song from his “A Face in the Crowd”-based stage musical in progress that he has been previewing almost every night on tour in 2023, as a politically satirical gospel-rocker that happens to be rousing enough to serve as a run-up to “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.” (The sendup did not get a reprise on night 2.) The remaining 22 all found a place for the three interlopers lined up to keyboardist Steve Nieve’s left — trumpet player and arranger Michael Leonhart, saxophonist Donny McCaslin and trombonist Ray Mason.

Sometimes they added minor augmentation to songs that felt like they should have horns, or at some point in the distant past really had. (Costello recorded and toured with a horn section around 1983’s “Punch the Clock,” then brought the idea back for his too-brief collaborations in the late 2000s and early 2010s with Allen Toussaint and the Roots.) A couple of numbers from the vintage-R&B-inspired “Get Happy!!” — “Possession” and a medley of a “Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down” verse going into a full “High Fidelity” — gave indication of how some of the songs on that 1980 classic nearly seemed to have implied brass. But then it was also brought to bear on a few vintage songs where a fan probably never would have predicted it, like, namely, the set’s opening number, “Pills and Soap.” That song always a little on the cold and clinical side in Costello’s initial recording more than 40 years ago, but, without completely losing its ominous side, it sure warmed up in Leonhart’s show-opening arrangement; if you could substitute this version for the original in your collection, having heard it now, you probably would.

Some of the section’s contributions to Costello staples were a little closer to the subliminal side, especially when things got loud, a la “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea” and “Watching the Detectives,” or when the players would take five and then reappear for a repeating riff at the very end of a number, as they did at the close of the Hollywood High, Costello-and-Nieve duo version of “Accidents Will Happen.” (I know, I know, the horns said in unison there, if reeds could nag.) The featured trio further brought a deep, dark, truthful mirror to stuff that might be considered mid-period, like “The Comedians” and “Poisoned Rose,” the latter now fully turned into the country-jazz song it always threatened to be on “King of America.”

And in two specific instances, the added players allowed for songs to be heard as they were on record, in a way they almost never have before. “Shipbuilding” had Leonhart doing his best reincarnated impression of original trumpeter Chet Baker, while Burt Bacharach was the one who really seemed resurrected when Costello’s band launched into “Toledo,” from “Painted From Memory.” “You’ll hear his voice” when the song starts, Costello promised, and the trio was able to make good on that promise by adding a Bacharachian flugelhorn and flute to the Burt-signature riff.

But one of the real joys of the show, at least for hardcore fans, was in the more “obscure” material from the 21st century that Costello chose to introduce into his show because he had a firm idea what the horns could do with it. That included some material from the overlooked pandemic-era album that first brought Leonhart into the fold in a substantial way, 2021’s “Hey Clockface,” which contributed the fiercely moody “We Are All Cowards Now” and “Newspaper Pane” to the set. His fleeting Roots (as in Questlove) era was celebrated with “Cinco Minutos Con Vos.” And what was perhaps one of the formerly less remarkable numbers from the Grammy-winning “Look Now” album, “Mr. and Mrs. Hush,” got an all-new arrangement that turned it into a real keeper. That song is now basically a “Get Happy!!”-style stomper, but set to the rhythm of “Pump It Up,” to the point it sounded like he was going to instigate a medley at any second.

The highlight of the show? Any time that former EC producer and now touring opener Nick Lowe steps up to the mic to share a duet of “Peace, Love and Understanding,” as he sporadically has on the last two tours and did again Wednesday, you’d be hard-pressed to say it’s not that, for sentiment’s sake.

But at this first Beacon show, there was no contest for the winner of this particular derby. It was “Someone Took the Words Away,” from 2003’s “North,” easily Costello’s most underrated album, and — weirdly — his most despondent and romantic, all at once. For a good portion of this slightly strange, haunting ballad, the words did get taken away, as vocals gave way to a very extended instrumental section in which Leonhart and Mason kept the core riff slowly going while McCaslin went completely nuts over, under and around them with an astonishing solo that kept descending in spirals the listening human brain could hardly fathom. McCaslin is known for his work on David Bowie’s “Blackstar” album, so this is a guy who knows how to do Dark Sax. What he did on “Someone Took the Words Away” this hot July night on the Upper West side amounted to the most mind-blowing tenor sax solo I’ve heard someone do on a “rock” artist’s song since Chris Potter got let loose on Steely Dan’s “West of Hollywood” — but this felt heartbreaking as well as dizzying.

Focusing on the horn contributions admittedly doesn’t leave much room for admiring the never-taken-for-granted excellence of the Imposters, or of Costello himself, who seemed to have a couple tentative vocal moment or two in the opening numbers and then quickly warmed up into the world-class seether/belter his audience knows and loves. There was another guest besides the horns, which would be additional Charlie Sexton, so reliable a part of Costello’s shows in 2022-23 that it seems inevitable he’d be grafted in for good if he’s not harboring any particular wanderlust. They’ve got a pretty good lead guitar balance down at this point, with Elvis doing the more psychedelic — or psychotic — solos and Sexton doing the bluesier stuff that takes the show to a roadhouse, as the Texas slinger did on a new-ish, unreleased number that’s recently become a reliable part of Costello’s shows, “Like Licorice on Your Tongue.” One thing that was absent from this show that has otherwise been a nightly highlight for Costello shows for the last year and a half (including when we caught this tour at L.A.’s Greek less than a month ago) is “What If I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” which usually includes a flurry of twin shredding by both Elvis and Charlie. It was missed, but would’ve been a little too noisy and messy for this more finely calibrated portion of the tour.

The “Summer Holiday” tour came to its close Friday night in Philadelphia at the Met, and horn cases have been latched up — as have drum cases, for that matter — as Costello and Nieve look to reconvene for an overseas tour as a duo this fall, possibly extended to America at some later date. But as the singer and pianist move on to Paris, the fans fortunate enough to catch these last six dates can tell themselves: We’ll always have Bridgeport, Boston, Syracuse, Philly, Baltimore and the Beacon.

Setlist for the Beacon Theater, July 12, 2023:

  1. Pills And Soap
  2. Possession
  3. Newspaper Pane
  4. Like Licorice on Your Tongue
  5. Alison/ I’m Gonna Make You Love Me
  6. Toledo
  7. Almost Blue
  8. We Are All Cowards Now
  9. Shut Him Down
  10. I Do (Zula’s Song)
  11. The Comedians
  12. Someone Took the Words Away
  13. I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down (excerpt)
  14. High Fidelity
  15. Mr. & Mrs. Hush
  16. Shipbuilding
  17. Cinco Minutos Con Vos
  18. Watching the Detectives
  19. (I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea
  20. Accidents Will Happen
  21. Blood & Hot Sauce
  22. Poisoned Rose
  23. (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding (with Nick Lowe)

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