The Weight

January 12, 2010

Who needs the Sundance Channel when the best clips from Elvis Costello’s show Spectacle are all up on YouTube?

What I gather from the clips available online, Elvis hosts his TV show from a rented out amphitheater or auditorium, and invites a hodgepodge of special guests, many of them Great with a Capital G, to perform their songs and others’. That part is self-evident. As for what happens on the rest of the show, your guess is as good as mine. Here are three fantastic performances I’ve stumbled on recently.

Elvis Costello and the Impostors perform “The Weight” with The Band’s Levon Helm, members of the Levon Helm Band, Elvis’ former writing partner Nick Lowe (he wrote “What’s So Funny About Peace Love and Understanding” with his English pub-rock band Brinsley Schwarz), one of the greatest living guitarists Richard Thompson, former recent mainstay of The Bob Dylan Band Larry Campbell and Allen Toussaint, whom I’ve written about recently, and arranged horn sections for The Band in the early 1970s. A veritable Flomax commercial that rocks out. It’s filled with really special vocal performances here, each one seriously owned by each singer. Allen Toussaint proves the master with the simplest lingering over wrong beats, like that’s the way it’s meant to be sung, and blasts the band into the next few verses.

I should have closed with “The Weight,” since it’s really an encore type of performance. But we’re going to front-load with the familiar to lead into the underrated. This next performance is Jesse Winchester singing his new song “Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Ding.” This video because was sent to me originally with the subject line: “Winchester Makes Neko Case Cry.” I really wanted to see that, I can’t tell you why. Winchester fled to Canada to dodge the draft during the Vietnam War, and his lack of fame in the U.S. is often attributed to the fact that he never toured in the U.S. during that whole singer-songwriter fad of the 1970s. I know a few people who remember him from the old days, but of course hadn’t thought of him until they saw this video. I think his absence helps the emotional thrust of the writing here, the remorseful theme feels almost informed by the historical circumstances that drove Winchester from our lives. The refrain, “sham-a-ling-dong-ding,” as if borrowed from a doo-wop song from the 50s, sets the stage for a teenage love affair, which might as well be Winchester’s as he reminisces on his youth. Nothing extraordinary about that. However, when he starts to play with refrain, changing the words around, it sounds like the most beautiful sonorous poetry you’ve ever heard, and, at least to me, evocative of the happier side of nostalgia. The erie quality of the song comes through his weathered and scratchy high-pitched voice too. I thought this song was something rare.

Neko Case and Under-Appreciated Artists Because They Hardly Ever Toured makes a good segue to the final clip of Neko performing the Harry Nilsson song “Don’t Forget Me.” I saw Neko sing this song this summer at the Greek, and my heart sank a little when she said a prayer for Harry and his famous bathrobe in the open-air, natural ampitheater, my first show since moving to Los Angeles. (Some things you never forget.) I’ve told myself that I need to lay off the Harry, so this is the last time I’ll write about him ’til I turn 40 or start taking Flomax, whichever comes first. My favorite part of this song is when the speaker (Harry, Neko, whomever) gets so down and out he or she starts thinking about cancer, and then quickly reverses in a moment of ecstatic, bipolar, and beautiful self- and audience-awareness, and I think it’s writerly moments like that which give Nilsson his god-like status among so many people.

Hope you dig!

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