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    Monday, October 09, 2006

    Elvis Costello @ Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, 10-6-06

    It couldn’t get much better if I’d designed it. Elvis Costello was headlining the first day of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. The early autumn weather on Friday afternoon was pleasant and cool. Acres of Golden Gate Park greenery unfurled in front of me like a giant welcome mat. I had good company in the form of my friends Sarah and Alison. It had all the ingredients for a great day of music.

    Plus, I’d seen Elvis Costello once before in Central Park. He ended up playing over two-and-a-half hours and followed up with four stunningly good encores, pulling out more old hits than a nostalgic mobster. We all sat there drenched from a passing storm, but no one moved or cared. It was one of the best and most generous concerts I’ve ever seen, starring one of my all-time favorite musicians.

    Before I get to this latest concert, allow me to qualify my obsession a little further: I spent most of high school quoting E.C. in my AIM profiles. I spent a large part of my relationship with a girl named Alison referencing the song. I guarantee a spot for Armed Forces on my desert-island list. I had Brutal Youth consecutively checked out from my local library for over six months before someone put a hold on it and I had to buy my own copy. I exhausted whole towers of CD-Rs trying to convert the uninitiated.

    So of course, I was pit-of-your-stomach-fanboy-excited. The fact that he was playing Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, an annual three-day, five-stage festival made completely free thanks to a generous billionaire named Warren Hellman, made it even more appealing. And most of San Francisco agreed: although Elvis was playing at 4:15 on a weekday, half of the city turned up to join me. The park quickly became a mosaic of blankets, tarps, towels and mats, ornamented with the patterns of picnic baskets, wine bottles and six-packs. Babies and dogs ran rampant. Older couples danced sweetly along the sidelines.

    Elvis appeared promptly and launched into “(The Angels Wanna Wear) My Red Shoes.” He sounded just as good as he did on his 1977 debut. He was more playful now though, instigating the audience into constant call-and-responses. The baby boomers around me were lapping it up, shouting back “Oh, why’s that?” and “Oh, that’s too bad!” with adorable gusto. (Okay, I was too.) He continued charging into powerful renditions of “The River In Reverse” and “God's Comic,” willfully leaping back and forth through the decades.

    I swear if you squint you'll see Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch

    I kept expecting an abbreviated set, but Elvis was set on delivering it all. He interspersed a good deal of countrified numbers, joined by the Hammer of the Honky-Tonk Gods. He brought on Emmylou Harris repeatedly for the slower, more rhapsodic numbers. Gillian Welch came out too, to up the star power and country cred a little further. Elvis dipped back into his mid-80s catalogue, mellowing the crowd to mull over divorce classics like “Good Year For The Roses” and “Indoor Fireworks” and introduced less-familiar fare from The Delivery Man. Momentum came and went; the energy levels flitted and fell like a seismograph needle. Then he offered up Nick Lowe's “(What’s So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” and we went predictably crazy again.

    In the end, Elvis was Elvis. He sacrificed consistency for diversity. He tested the audience’s patience by tackling every genre short of hip hop, but when he wanted to, he could also rock the crowd like few others. He gave us almost too much, but ultimately, everyone got something from their period of choice. We also got a great afternoon in a great place with one of the legends of music. Talk about living in paradise.

    * MP3: "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" - Elvis Costello from Armed Forces [Buy it]

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