Elvis Costello at the State

categories: Cocktail Hour


Months ago Juliet bought tickets for Elvis Costello at the recently renovated State Theater down in Portland (our Portland, the one in Maine), and last night was the show.  We drove a couple of hours behind logging trucks, got a fine dinner (I added a gin and tonic and club soda or two to the mix), and then to the State.  It’s a pretty relaxed place, and we walked around a while looking at the renovation.  It’s a pretty clever approach, if a lot of cement, and clearly done on a slim budget, but the theater was preserved and now offers a steady stream of concerts.  It seats about 15oo people, nice.  Very nice, actually, since the place shut down in 2006, slated for demolition, rescued by saints, just reopened last fall. The seats in the orchestra are all movable.  So depending on the act, they can set up a dance club or a concert hall.  Which means they can make money. Last night was a concert hall.  You can stand if you want, though, in a pleasing bar area under the balcony, watch the show from there.  Or you can sit in your seat.  Ours were in the balcony.  Nothing’s far from the stage.  Conversations all around us, happy people.

Okay, the show.  Before there’s any music, there’s the set, a go-go cage to the left, a huge wheel-of-fortune to the right, with forty or fifty song titles on it.  And a carnival type ring-the-bell with a sledgehammer dealie.  (Okay, cowboy wordsmiths, what’s this thing called?)  Just a little late, the band burst onto the stage to cheers and band started playing, an explosion.  I can’t recall what they played–I’m not a set-list guy–and anyway, I was distracted by the terrible, terrible sound quality.  I don’t know if it’s a house P.A. and they were overpowering it or if it was theirs and just inadequate, or if the sound man wasn’t up to the job or if the house just sounds like that, so much cement.  It was a big, booming, ringing cacophony that swallowed Elvis’s beloved voice whole and distorted everything else, not a chance of nuance.  The bass drum was the loudest thing, that’s all I know.

A dancer in spangles and tights entered the go-go cage and gyrated in a seeming good mood.  At first she seemed in jail, kind of exploit-y, but then, gradually, the irony takes over properly and you see that the whole spectacle is fun.

After a few songs they got it sounding somewhat better, but the awful sound was  a problem all night.

Meanwhile, Elvis was terrific.  He’s funny, he’s quirky.  He’s playing a kind of carnival barker and not just himself.  A young woman of great height in big striped bell-bottoms roamed out into the crowd and grabbed a middle-aged woman. (These were not in short supply.  In fact, I’ve seldom seen a more homogenous demographic at any show, everyone exactly 48 years old.  Except Elvis and I, who are 56 and 57 respectively, both Leos with birthdays coming up.)

Anyway, they had this lovely woman with her long, gray, Breck-girl hair spin the wheel.  And then they played the song that came up while she took a seat at the piano bar and was served a drink.  By the end of the song, she was in the go-go cage, dancing with the pro.  Then the next 48-year-old, then the next.  I was heartened to see that if Elvis didn’t like the song spun, he’d click the wheel to a song he liked, dishonest as any carnie.

Shortly, the bell-bottom woman found a young couple to bring up.  Elvis asked if they were married.  No.  The bell-bottom woman produced a huge ring.  “Get down on your knee!” Elvis commanded the young man.  He did as he was told, proposed, and was accepted, though both he and the young woman seemed to be kidding–soon they were snogging in the go-go cage and dancing up a storm.

He played just one solo song.  The crowd wasn’t used to drinking so much at their age, and everyone was talking, talking.  You couldn’t hear our man.  So, get this, he stepped away from the mike.  He stepped away from the mike with his acoustic Gibson and you could not hear a thing for all the talking and cocktail-party laughter.  But his mouth was moving and his hands were playing that guitar.   Shhhh!   Shhhh!  gradually, people noticed what was going on, remembered what we were all doing out so late at our age, began to listen.  And the miracle was, you could hear him.  You could hear him perfectly.  This was very moving.

Juliet and I hit the bar, not for more drinks, but just to get closer to the scene.  We were so close that when Elvis ran up looking for the next victims to spin the wheel and dance, taking five 48-year-old women back down to the stage with him, Juliet could have gone.  But she did not.  Because she had to pee.  And you don’t want to be having to pee while Elvis is dancing you up and giving you squeezes in front of 1495 people.

After a bathroom break, we we took a walk right up to the stage. No one seemed to mind, so long as we kept moving.  And so we kept moving, very slowly.

A great night.

Late, the bell-bottom woman found two very attractive young women, seventeen or eighteen at a guess, off-demographic by 30 years, very fashionable in Elvis eye-wear and long dresses cut up to here.  They were escorted to the drummer’s side.  He gave them sticks.  And on cue, the taller of the young women hit a perfect drum roll along with the drummer, then did it again, adding a cymbal.  I mean, not kidding around.  She knew the song very well, and knew her way around the drum kit, great authority.

Later, Jules and I made it to seats in front of the stage (people off dancing everywhere), realized we were behind the young  women.  Jules tapped the drummer girl on the shoulder.  She turned, accepted our compliments.  “Are you a plant?” Juliet asked her.  The kid grinned.  “Yes, ya, the drummer, he’s my Da!”

Maybe it was bring-your-daughter-to-work day.

  1. Pat Shipley writes:

    I love Elvis, Imposters or Attractions, solo, whatever. This has been a banner year for us going to 48 y/o female rich concerts. Elvis solo, Elvis opening for Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen (with the Big Man), Randy Newman the night after he won an academy award, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Rickie Lee Jones, Levon Helm multiple times, Richard Thompson <3, etc.
    Musicians play the soundtrack to our life stories. I feel old and feeble when I can't understand Dylan. I delight to see Levon Helm with his daughter and ass kicking band, barely able to sing after his multiple boughts of throat cancer, having the time of his life. I am brought back to medical school with MC Carpenter who used to play at the Twist and Shout, in a VFW basement frequented by the likes of Sleepy LaBeef, Zydeco and rockabilly greats.
    Musicians hear music with the right, analytical side of the brain. Non musicians use the left. As a musician I think the acoustics bothered you more than they would have most of us. Nonetheless, a banner evening. Thanks for sharing it with us.

    • Bill writes:

      I have a third side to my brain, Pat, the fuzzy reptile side… Isn’t Levon amazing? Have you heard anything about the shows at his place in Woodstock, NY? Midnight Ramble? These small-scale concerts that come with dinner and greats.

      • Pat Shipley writes:

        Yes, the primitive reptilian brain.
        Have not been to a Midnight Ramble yet but have seen a few on CD and they have been great.
        I love Levon and still love listening to The Band, RKO AllStars, Levon solo.
        We still bring out The Last Waltz and make jokes about Robbie Robertson belting the songs out with his mike turned off, cinematic advances by Martin Scorsese like the bugger map to hide the large chunk of cocaine in Neil Young’s nostril, and the reasoning behind including Neil Diamond. Special note must be made of Van Morrison’s jumpsuit and ability to remain erect. Joe actually read “This Wheels on Fire” by Levon on our honeymoon. What a romantic.
        Levon Helm plays in Charlottesville quite a bit. I never miss him.
        As a keyboard player Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson in the same band was pretty sweet. I think Richard Manuel had the most beautiful voice in Rock and Roll.
        I have to stop. I sound like I’m writing an article for Teen Beat. Loved your piece.
        I could go on about the highs and lows of Levons acting career. Everone knows about “Coalminer’s Daughter”. Has anyone….anyone seen “Man Outside”? Possibly the worst movie ever made but with Levon as the town sherrif and cameos by Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson. Stop me before I go on about his encyclopedic knowledge of American music.

  2. jonboy writes:

    sounds like a blast, bill. i’ve seen some great bands play throughout the state’s many incarnations, and the sound was invariably awful. you’ve demonstrated it doesn’t have to ruin a good time, though.

    as for the “carnival type ring-the-bell with a sledgehammer dealie,” i spent a teenage summer in old orchard beach working that dealie, and i never knew what it was called either.

    • Bill writes:

      I saw Shawn Colvin there with band many years ago, still curtains to soak up sound, and it was great. Probably 1993 or so. I’m so happy the sledgehammer thing doesn’t have a name.

  3. malcolm s bates writes:

    I’m not sure concert hall sound systems are up to the demands of a rock and roll show, although you would think that by now they would have figured it out. I had the same problem with a Drive By Trucker’s concert in Seattle a year ago. It all came out of the sound system as one huge goopy Blaaaaaaaaah!, hard to discern bass from lead guitar and vocals, but actually, it was a mighty fine Blaaaaaah! But when the lyrics are completely lost in the sound soup, something is lost. But, you have to admit, just seeing Elvis is cool and sometimes that is all that is required.
    I envied your freedom of movement. Sounds like quite the rock and rool carnival!

    • Mike writes:

      Great account of the night. And an extraordinary amount of showmanship from a songwriter who could just come out and play it straight. I guess Elvis doesn’t miss an opportunity in any creative department.

      • Bill writes:

        I don’t know how these guys with long, long careers can come out night after night and play all the same songs… Elvis has found a way, not cynical but self-deprecating and fond.

    • Bill writes:

      Elvis was very cool. And the theater is terrific, despite all, very relaxed atmosphere, at least with that demographic. Mac, tell us about your blog. Enquiring minds want to know.