Elvis Costello and the Roots Celebrate ‘Wise Up Ghost’ at Brooklyn Bowl
Come 4AM, when inspiration sends him reaching for the pen on his bedside table, Elvis Costello probably doesn't jot down lines or titles. Sure, he's one of the finest songwriters of his generation, but since arriving fully formed in the late '70s as a caustic and clever nerd-punk avenger, there's one thing he's done even more consistently than pen great lyrics, and that's defy musical expectations. It's easy to imagine his brainstorming notebook filled with genres to try out and artists to jam with, and in the last decade alone, he's gone from piano pop to alt-country to opera to New Orleans soul to bluegrass to whatever you call the wordy soul-funk jams he's now kicking with the Roots.
'Wise Up Ghost,' the product of this latest left-field collaboration, drops today (Sept. 17) on Blue Note, and to celebrate the album's release, Elvis and the Roots joined forces last night at Brooklyn Bowl in New York City. True to form, these brothers in boundlessly curiosity didn't stick to their joint material, and in addition to reworking a handful of Costello faves, they covered the Specials' doom-reggae anthem 'Ghost Town' and John Lennon's solo classic 'I Found Out.'
"Good morning," Roots drummer and bandleader Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson said at 10PM, a good 30 minutes after he and the crew had been due onstage. "Welcome to what we call the manifestation of a dream."
Whatever the reason for the delay, hip-hop's preeminent live band was in no rush to get on with it, and Questo introduced each member of the group, giving brief bios as he held down a loose boom-slap on the drums. Last to arrive was the perpetually suited, hatted and bespectacled Costello, who befriended the Roots a few years back while appearing on 'Late Night With Jimmy Fallon,' where they serve as house band. Once Costello had grabbed his patented Jazzmaster electric and taken his place at the mic, the ensemble shifted into 'Wake Me Up,' a highlight of the new record.
On the album, the tune's fat, bumping groove and free-association lyrics make for six minutes of easy listening, and while the song -- like many from 'Wise Up Ghost' -- translated well enough to the Brooklyn Bowl stage, it's too hookless and linear to completely avoid dragging. With 'Ghost,' Elvis and the Roots have essentially made their version of a freestyle rap record, and with the exception of ballads like 'Tripwire' -- one of Monday night's standouts -- it's more about the fluidity of the rhythm section and the craziness of Costello's spitting than it is the infectiousness of the melodies.
Elvis likely realizes this, and his decision to intersperse funkdafied versions of 'Watching the Detectives,' 'Shabby Doll' and his more recent sparkler 'Spooky Girlfriend' was a good one.
Costello and the gang closed out the regular set with 'I Want You,' a ballad from 1986's 'Blood & Chocolate,' the first of Elvis' many "return to rock" albums. Since Brooklyn Bowl is an actual bowling alley, not just a music venue, Elvis got some unexpected accompaniment during one of the quieter bits, as some rock-chucking patron seemingly knocked down seven or eight pins. It was distracting, but it kind of worked. Mark it a new sub-genre: bowl & b.