Elvis Costello is quite familiar with Nashville, having, among other things, recorded Almost Blue, an album of country covers, here with producer Billy Sherrill in the early 1980s. Earlier this month, he returned to the South for inspiration, traveling to Sweet Tea Studios in Oxford, Miss., to work on an album for Lost Highway with producer Dennis Herring (Counting Crows, Buddy Guy).
To prepare for the sessions, which began 10 days ago, Costello and his band, The Imposters, spent a few days rehearsing in a rented club in Oxford, before capping a week of practice with a pair of gigs at Proud Larry's, a postage-stamp-sized college club there. Two nights of shows were scheduled, each featuring two 70-minute sets. Over the course of both nights, Costello and his band blazed their way through a total of 17 new songs, as well as a few older ones like "Radio Radio," "(What's So Funny 'bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" and "Beyond Belief."
Since this was a rehearsal, they did many of the new songs more than once, making it interesting to hear some of them reworked from performance to performance. Costello played with different lyrics on "The Deliveryman," while keyboardist Steve Nieve substantially altered the arrangement on "Nothing Clings Like Ivy." "Heart-Shaped Bruise," a song that made its debut at Costello's Ryman show four years ago, was transformed from a Hank Williams-style strummer to mid-tempo country-rock.
The material marks a return to the rocking style of Costello's early career and, in a couple of cases, to the pointed political commentary of his most recent Ryman concert in February. These songs likely will placate those fans who were disappointed with the subdued tone of his last album, North. Not that satisfying his fans is foremost on Costello's mind right now, what with his recent marriage to jazz singer Diana Krall and their collaborations on material for her forthcoming album, The Girl in the Other Room.
Costello continues his Southern odyssey with a day or two of recording in Clarksdale, Miss., the epicenter of Delta blues, and then plans to head up Highway 61 to Memphis, where he will record with producer Jim Dickinson at Ardent Studios. Supplementing those sessions will be a pair of shows at the Hi-Tone club in Memphis on April 16 and 17. Costello will be doing another two sets a night, although each of these sold-out sets requires its own ticket, unlike the shows at Proud Larry.
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