Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Spinning Songbook Countdown: Costello & Nieve

This collection was a bittersweet find.

It was released in 1996 as a limited edition recollection of Elvis Costello's shows with just keyboardist during that year. By the time I thought of seeking it out as a rabid completist fan, in 2005, it was hard to find for less than $100 new and $50 used - something beyond my reach at the time.

I'd ask of it for birthdays or Christmas but it seemed to be always hard to find. I pretty much gave up trying to find a copy until a visit to what was one of Florida's greatest record stores, Vinyl Fever in Tampa.

Besides being a great place to find a ton of great stuff on vinyl, this Tampa institution had an amazing collection of used and new titles. It was a large store, which perhaps worked against it towards the end, with plenty or room for browsing. Two hours away from where I live, Vinyl Fever was always must stop for drives across the state.

During one of those many drives, I found this collection but I couldn't fit it in my budget after spending most of my mad money on vinyl. As always, I regretted not buying it as soon I got back in my car.

A few months later, in February of 2011, I came back to be surprised by a huge "Store Closing" sign across the vinyl slab logo that had welcomed me so often. The store had been open for 30 years and it would close in a few days. Along with the store closing sign came one of those "everything must go" and the vultures had arrived.

Vinyl Fever, Tampa’s iconic independent record store, has been closed for more than a year now but two of the guys from that store have opened Microgroove in Tampa. (http://mindbalmrecords.com/)

I looked around and didn't feel like buying much but I saw this collection again and had to get it. It was used with some scuff marks on the case but the discs were pristine. Now, besides capturing the wonderful interplay between Elvis Costello and his great keyboardist, the collection is my last great find at Vinyl Fever.

Recording an intimate live performance doesn't get any better than the music in these five CDs, each comprising five or six songs from five different cities in the U.S. The track list features several songs from All This Useless Beauty, stripping them down to just the guitar Costello plays and the masterful piano notes from Nieve in what some might argue are better versions of the songs than those on record.

The spare accompaniment also yields intriguing versions of classics like "Watching the Detectives," "The Long Honeymoon," "Temptation," "Man Out of Time," and a version of "Alison" featuring snippets from five other songs. There are also several covers of songs Costello has recorded throughout his career, Burt Bacharach's "I Just Don't Know What to Do with Myself," the Grateful Dead's "Ship of Fools" and "My Funny Valentine."

Another fascinating performance is the stripped down version of "My Dark Life," a collaboration with Brian Eno that emerged in the X-Files themed compilation Songs in the Key of X. The version in that album is gorgeously weird featuring all sorts of obscure noises and an atmosphere that only Brian Eno could provide. In this compilation, Costello plays it straight with just a guitar and while some of the darkness recedes, it still manages to enthrall.

Finally, perhaps what makes this set so great is that it's the first official live release capturing Costello's masterful stage presence - breaking in the middle of a song to tell a story or introducing it with a joke. It's something that makes him great to watch live and could only be found in bootlegs before this release.  

Classics: "Temptation," "Poor Fractured Atlas," "All This Useless Beauty," "The Long Honeymoon."

Songs I'd like to hear live: Every spinning wheel has a jackpot called "Joanna," which is Cockney slang for piano, where Costello & Nieve tackle one of his songs with this bare accompaniment. I'd like to see them revisit any of these.

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