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MSN Music News

Elvis Costello and the Roots Pump It Up

The dream date between UK punk standard-bearer and Philly's polymath funk-and-beyond band heats up onstage in Brooklyn

BROOKLYN--Elvis Costello has become the acknowledged standard-bearer of English punk, and there can be no doubt that he's earned his legend. At 59, he has been crafting quality songs without surcease since he was barely 21. Always a riveting live performer, he is by now such a confident presence that the mere sound of his resonantly acerbic voice can transform a room in a single cameo, and he's so immersed in music history that he's collaborated with George Jones, Allen Toussaint, Burt Bacharach and Paul McCartney as well as various classical luminaries. Yet there's also no doubt that he's basically a cult hero. Having announced early on that all his songs were about revenge and guilt, he never convinced pop fans he was on their side. Wholehearted love songs have been infrequent and obscure in his catalogue, the biggest bunch squirreled away on 2003's "North," his violin-imbued Deutsche Grammophon album for his third wife, jazz singer-pianist Diana Krall.

Costello's current collaborators the Roots are a late entry in a best-band-in-the-world sweepstakes. That competition isn't getting any heavier, especially if you leave the metal and jam worlds out of it. But for guys who work four nights a week on eight months of late-night TV, they tour a lot, and their Jimmy Fallon connection has impelled them well beyond the best-funk-band title that was theirs for the asking. Like Costello, Roots drummer-leader Ahmir Questlove Thompson is a pop polymath--not as steeped in history, he's younger, but quite possibly better-informed about not just funk and hip-hop, but modern white rock too. So after the Roots backed Elvis on "Fallon" a few times, a psyched Quest hinted that maybe they could do an album together. Over a year of spare-time get-togethers, followed by full-time studio work with producer and third songwriting collaborator Steven Mandel, "Wise Up Ghost" materialized.

It makes itself felt from the first drum hit, too. Costello can be a fussbudget, but this album has body as well as the beats you'd expect and the horn charts and orchestral touches you might not. The beats aren't necessarily tricky--Quest's signature is a metronomic hip-hop snare thwock, and he doesn't funk up the pop and rock acts he backs on TV. But they're loud and out front, and Costello's singing emanates from nearer his heart than usual. Never shy about his formidable wordcraft, he swallows no lyrics and includes a booklet. "Keep a red flag waving/Keep a blue flag as well/And a white flag in case it all goes to hell." "Blossoms fragrant opening/Poppies full of opium." The not-quite-rhymes "blindfold," "hand held," "minefield" and "quicksand." Impressive. But also there to remind us that over the years Costello has augmented revenge and guilt with despair and scorn. And so "Wise Up Ghost" proves to be what Costello himself has called an "End of Days theme park." I'm all for pop songs that excoriate the ruling class like "Viceroy's Row" and "Walk Us Uptown." But pessimism can be an escape too.

So I kept my expectations on hold at the album-release showcase where the Roots joined Costello in Williamsburg's 600-capacity Brooklyn Bowl on Sept. 16. Of course, they were there nonetheless--it was only my third Roots show, and the first time I'd seen Costello since the '80s. So I was glad to encounter a pleasant surprise I should have anticipated surfaced in the opening "Wake Me Up": Not only were the Roots a compelling live band, dominated by Questlove with guitarist Kirk Douglas and keyboardist James Poyser roiling and elaborating just beneath, but ordinary live dynamics have the effect of reducing lyrics to catchphrases, in this case a bunch of "wake me up"s and a single "There must be something better than this"--darkness I could get with. Two new songs followed with similar effect, and then there was a surprise I wasn't counting on: the unmistakable intro to the 1977 single "Watching the Detectives," the first sign that this performance wasn't conceived merely to stuff new material down the fan base's throat. Next came 1982's "Shabby Doll," an unhappy love song equally unkind to both genders. And then, after a forgettable cameo by the all too lovely Diane Birch, the show was stood on its head by another guest new to me: warm, good-humored Marisoul, of L.A.-based Mexican-American band La Santa Cecilia. She was on for three songs: Costello's uncommonly playful 2002 "Spooky Girlfriend"; her own "Wise Up Ghost" feature, the geopolitical romantic tragedy "Cinco Minutos Con Vos"; and the showstopping "Ghost Town."

Recorded by U.K. two-tone heroes the Specials in response to one set of unemployment riots and in conjunction with another, "Ghost Town" is plenty pessimistic, and spookier than "Spooky Girlfriend." Yet it's also true ska, focused on endangered youth and capable of celebrating through the darkness the way great blues do, and as the Roots jammed it--with Costello's enthusiastic, hard-skanking support--the show took off, then leveled into the Costello chestnut "I Don't Want to Go to Chelsea" and dug deep into the earthbound new "Walk Up Town." "Ghost Town" was hardly the climax, however. The climax was the climax: the tortured old Costello revenge song "I Want You," a concert staple that the Roots tore into so hard it looked like Questlove and Douglas and bassist Mark Kelley especially had dreamed of this all their lives: a full-bore rock rave-up with a certified rock legend, leading the charge with his shouted vocals and ripping plenty of noise from his own guitar. It is for such moments that musicians play music and fans pay to hear it.

Yes, there was an encore, and you know what? They did it again. Title song of new album, check. Onward to "Pump It Up": "Pump it up when you don't really need it/Pump it up until you can feel it." The perfect ending. Only then everyone left except Costello, Douglas, Kelley, and Quest: g-g-b-d. "What is that song?" we wondered, and then gradually most of us found out: "I Found Out," from John Lennon's "Plastic Ono Band," a brutal paean to disillusion done as a double-speed punk anthem. Final line: "No one can harm you, feel your own pain." Live with it.

MSN Music, September 18, 2013