For some reason every time I go to a show at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester, New York it’s memorable.
Tonight was no exception, Elvis Costello and the Imposters were set to start two sold out nights with special guest guitarist Charlie Sexton. What happened? Minutes before the show started, master keyboardist and musical director Steve Nieve tested positive for COVID-19. He wasn’t allowed to go on stage. A big part of Costello’s show depends on Nieve’s wizardry.
So what to do? Costello ripped up the set list he’d planned, similar to the one he’d used in six previous shows in the States, and announced: “We’re just going to play every song we know.” Without Nieve, Costello dubbed the ‘new’ band — which consisted of Pete Thomas on drums and Davey Faragher on rhythm guitar — “The Layabouts.”
The Layabouts put on one of the best and most unique Elvis Costello shows I’ve ever seen. Nieve was missed, but the band played on. (And during a remarkable “Watching the Detectives,” Costello even ventured over to Nieve’s abandoned keyboard station for a little organ improvisation.)
What makes Costello a genuine artist is his versatility. He comes from a jazz and big band background thanks to his father. He entered our consciousness at the forefront of punk and New Wave. But he integrated country and soul and rockabilly, then classical music very quickly into his repertoire. And last night we heard a little bit of all of it, some songs he rarely or doesn’t play at all.
I don’t even know how these guys handled it, and I asked Faragher after the show. He just shrugged. They just know how to play 500 different songs in several genres at the drop of a hat. So we got a stunning cover of Sam & Dave’s “I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down” and a full on “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” (Eric Burdon & the Animals) tacked on to an unplanned “So Like Candy.” There were two spot-on country covers that let Sexton shine with “Crying Time” and “The Bottle Let Me Down.”
There was also a new song, coming out this week, “Magnificent Hurt,” that sounded like a winner. A really cool take on “American Gangster Time,” which hadn’t been heard in a while, another new song — “Farewell OK” — that’s dynamite, and a sensational cover of Bobby Charles’s lost gem, “I Hope,” which Costello should record. Almost nothing followed the set list I expected from the six previous shows on this tour, which was fine. The spontaneity was contagious.
There is something magical about the Capitol Theater. Two years ago I saw Neil Young and Promise of the Real do a show there that felt like it levitated. Steely Dan always sounds better there. It’s just rock and roll chemistry.
Elvis and the Layabouts are back Tuesday night. Don’t miss them.
PS Of course, it all turned out to be a bad dream. Later, Nieve tested negative. The whole experience was like when two of the ladies on The View tested positive and had to leave the show while it was live on the air. It was a false alarm. But it did show how resilient Costello can be in an emergency!