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SPECTACLE REPORT: Elvis Costello's Must-Hear Tracks Levon Helm, Allen Toussaint, Richard Thompson and Nick Lowe


Elvis Costello with Nick Lowe on SPECTACLE

BUILDING THE BAND

This was one of the more chaotic SPECTACLE evenings. It was also one of the most joyful. We began with the simple idea of constructing a one-time-only band of guitar, piano, bass and drums, each member having taken some kind of cue from another somewhere along the line. It was a pretty unique combination of players and writers…

RICHARD THOMPSON – Electric Guitar

I first heard Richard play the guitar in 1970 with Fairport Convention, a group that amplified English folk airs in much the same way The Band drew from the rivers and tributaries of American music.

A year later I saw him playing Buddy Holly songs with an ensemble of traditional folk stars who were moonlighting as The Bunch; they shared a festival bill with Tim Hardin, Dion, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, James Taylor and The Byrds.

I have admired Richard’s work these long years – singing or recording “Withered and Died” and “End Of The Rainbow” myself, and even making a feeble attempt to imitate his writing style in a song called “Joe Porterhouse.”

However, what he can achieve with an acoustic or, especially, an electric guitar solo, is almost beyond my comprehension – and quite beyond my reach.

His SPECTACLE solo on “Shoot Out The Lights” took but a few moments to reach an intensity that few guitar players even know about. I tried to describe the effect to a friend and could only manage “It was like driving a Maserati off a cliff in six seconds and surviving.”

Here are some other songs of his that you shouldn’t miss.

“The Calvary Cross” – I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight (1974)

One of the most beautiful and unsettling songs from Richard & Linda Thompson’s masterpiece. Seek out the nine-minute live rendition to hear Richard’s guitar playing at his most extreme and inventive.

“How I Wanted To” – Hand of Kindness (1983)

If there were still record producers with great ears, or A&R men with respect and influence, this song might have enjoyed many covers. I dream of hearing an R&B singer like the late and remarkable James Carr singing this desolate song.

I even tried to bring my own, rather more modestly skilled, rendition of the song to the SPECTACLE stage, but the rigors of the working week didn’t allow me to do it justice, and the song stayed on the editing room floor.

“Poppy Red” – from Sweet Warrior (2007)

Richard continues to write songs of wit and surprise, laced through albums awaiting your discovery. This is an absolute gem.

ALLEN TOUSSAINT – Piano

The transformation of a studio-based songwriter, producer and occasional recording artist to a travelling and performing artist is one of the more inspiring stories among the many trials and sorrows which faced New Orleans musicians after the post-Katrina disasters.

I’ve been fortunate to know Allen Toussaint for over 25 years, but our brief studio collaborations in the mid-to-late ‘80s cannot not compare with the experience of writing, recording and touring with this great musician in the last few years.

Allen’s modest demeanor belies the distance that some of his songs have travelled. The Rolling Stones were just one of a thousand groups who recorded “Fortune Teller.”

His impact is broad. Check the writing credits of R&B classics (Ernie K-Doe), rock ‘n’ roll songs (The Who), countrypolitian hits (Glen Campbell) and even TV show themes (The Dating Game). The name will read “Allen Toussaint.”

When I was a 20-year-old novice, I would see Nick Lowe play in the band Brinsley Schwarz. He would sometimes sing a great Lee Dorsey cover, “Hello Mama,” while his bandmate Bob Andrews took lead vocal on another Dorsey rarity, “Wonder Woman.” Both are songs from the Toussaint catalogue.

A couple of years ago I got to participate in one of Levon Helm’s “Midnight Ramble” shows in Woodstock, and there I witnessed the reunion of Allen and Levon, some 30 years after Allen had contributed those incredible horn charts to The Band’s live album, Rock of Ages. So perhaps it’s only appropriate that the SPECTACLE performance of Allen’s “A Certain Girl” concludes with a dialogue between just piano and drums.

Here are a few wonderful Allen Toussaint songs and performances that you should seek out.

“Freedom For The Stallion” – The Complete Warner Brothers Recordings (2004)

This is one of the Toussaint songs that was true when it was written, and seems even timelier today. Allen’s live rendition has a gravity and beauty that just about edges ahead of the Lee Dorsey recording on the Yes We Can album sessions – which, of course, A.T. also arranged and produced.

Lee Dorsey, “Riverboat” – from Yes We Can (1970)

Many of Allen’s songs provide a glimpse through a curtain into another way of living. “Riverboat” is just that sort of song. First cut by Lee Dorsey, it was later given a wonderfully cinematic reading by Van Dyke Parks on the Discover America album.

“Blue Drag” – from Bright Mississippi (2009)

Producer Joe Henry gathered an incredible ensemble to compliment Allen on his recent album of traditional New Orleans jazz compositions and related numbers, such as this Django Reinhardt tune. Hearing Allen’s piano connect with Marc Ribot’s guitar, both on record and during the three sets I caught during his five-night stand at New York’s Village Vanguard, was among 2009’s musical highlights – proof that the riches of the past permit the future that lies ahead.

NICK LOWE – Bass

I’ve known Nick Lowe ever since I bought him a drink in a pub near the Cavern club when I was living in Liverpool in the early ’70s. When I returned to London in 1973 to pursue my musical vocation, Nick was the one approachable person who I knew was making a living by playing in a band.

During Nick’s appearance on SPECTACLE we didn’t speak much about how he ended up producing five of my albums, or the fact that I had revived “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” a song that probably kept the wolf from Nick’s door after another artist cut it for the soundtrack of a hugely successful motion picture. Neither of us is sentimental or nostalgic by nature, but it was quite emotional for us to stand side by side on the famous stage of the Apollo Theater.

I want to take this opportunity to say how much I admire Nick’s more recent song writing. He always took cues and played songs by writers such as Allen Toussaint, Charlie Rich and Dan Penn. I think his ballads now have the same easy grace as Allen’s “It’s Raining,” Charlie’s “Life Has Its Little Ups and Downs,” or Dan’s “Out of Left Field.”

Here are few more of Nick’s songs that I love.

Brinsley Schwarz, “Don’t Lose Your Grip On Love” – Nervous On The Road (1972)

This beautiful R&B ballad was one of two songs on which I modelled my early tune “Alison” (the other was The [Detroit] Spinners’ “Ghetto Child”). I’ve even begun performing the song with the Imposters in recent years.

Dave Edmunds, “Here Comes The Weekend” – from Get It (1977)

At the time Nick was producing my first records, he was also in real live rock ‘n’ roll band with Dave Edmunds, Billy Bremner and Terry Williams called Rockpile. Unfortunately, contractual commitments prevented the band from recording under that banner when they were working at full tilt, but Nick and Dave contributed to each other’s records, often taking cues from the Everly Brothers. This is a perfect three-minute record.

“36 Inches High” – from Jesus of Cool (1978)
“Big Kick, Plain Scrap” – from Labour of Lust (1979)
“Basing Street” – from 16 All-Time Lowes (1984)

Nick would probably now scoff at the idea of being a legendary punk or New Wave producer, but quite apart from directing the Attractions and I to “Make it sound like a dinosaur eating cars,” and using a whip and chair in the task of corralling The Damned, between 1976 and 1980 he also made some wonderfully original – and just plain weird – records. Dig that crazy organ break on Jim Ford’s “36 Inches High,” the chemical strangeness of “Big Kick, Plain Scrap,” and a vocal on the tragic portrait of “Basing Street” that is so beyond intimate, it sounds as if it’s coming from within the singer’s head.

“Shelley My Love” – from The Impossible Bird (1994)
“I’m A Mess” – from The Convincer (2001)
“The Man That I’ve Become” – from Dig My Mood (1998)

There’s a great new compilation available called Quiet Please – The New Best of Nick Lowe, but even this survey of nearly 50 tracks misses some gems, so do seek out The Brentford Trilogy, a series of records featuring Nick’s more recent, confidential, approach.

LEVON HELM – Drums

The Band’s music seems both timeless and strange. I suppose you might call it simultaneously arcane and familiar. The precision songwriting was animated by five unique instrumentalists and inhabited by three remarkable vocalists.

All kinds of musicians have tried to take a similar approach; a few of them have shared the SPECTACLE stage. But no one I can think of ever released anything of equal results – though a lot of fine music was created in the attempt.

The Band’s music doesn’t acknowledge borders. Perhaps this explains how the work of a group containing four Ontarians came to be so identified with the American South.

Through the benefit of hindsight, it’s possible to see that a lot of The Band’s old world mischief and easy authority came from a son of Arkansas who sat at the drum chair.

“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” – from The Band (1969)

This rightly famous performance contains just about everything that is great about The Band, framing Levon’s heartbreaking vocal with the superb commentary of his own rhythmic press rolls and military drum fills. Even though your head tells you that this was a record made in the second half of the 20th century, it also creates the illusion that this music could be beaming in from the era described in the lyric.

“Life Is A Carnival” – from Cahoots (1971)

While writing of my unique experience of sitting in at a snowbound “Midnight Ramble” show, I was trying to describe Levon’s playing. Words never really do justice to music, so the closest I could get to explaining the magical effect of Levon escaping a tight musical corner with a remarkable drum fill was by saying that he played, “Like a tap-dancer in a rapidly flooding room.”

During the SPECTACLE gathering, Allen Toussaint gives a pretty good account of the impact of hearing Levon’s idiosyncratic playing upon his superb horn arrangement for this track. The combined talents create a kind of funk that can’t be duplicated.

Levon Helm, “Kingfish” – from Electric Dirt (2009)

The first time I heard Levon’s rendition of Randy Newman’s great song, it seemed impossible that this version had not existed until now. It is an absolutely perfect song for Levon to sing.

Following the wonderful Dirt Farmer, this album is the rock ‘n’ roll record that I’ve wanted to hear from Levon since seeing him and Rick Danko playing at New York’s Lone Star Café in the 1980s.

Levon’s recovery from throat cancer brought an increased workload which has temporarily caused him to take a vocal rest. He only played drums on his SPECTACLE appearance – if it could ever be said that he only plays drums. No question, though: the vocal performances on “Kingfish” and throughout Electric Dirt are among the finest that he has ever put on tape. I hope that there are even more to come.