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Elvis Costello surrounded by talent,Debuts secret, Profane material

by Ryan Snyder

Few artists are as indefinable as Elvis Costello and after more than 30 years of near-perpetual reinvention, it should come as no surprise that the man has sought to re-sow some of his own fallowed musical soil. He recruited celebrated studio guru T-Bone Burnett, producer of last year’s Grammy-winning Allison Krauss and Robert Plant collaboration Raising Sand, to revisit a style for his newest release that he hasn’t employed since 1986’s countryflavored King of America, which Burnett also supervised.

Still, Secret, Profane & Sugarcane is more than just a chameleonic British rocker trying to play cowboy or farmhand for a bit. Costello has surrounded himself with a crew of top-shelf Nashville studio players, which he’s cannily dubbed the Sugarcanes. With nearly 20 Grammys among them, it’s easily the most decorated group of musicians he’s ever had backing him. “I had the idea work with my friend T- Bone Burnett again to make an acoustic record, and as it turned out that we assembled a wonderful group of musicians,” Costello said. “And I had recorded with a couple of them, but going in the studio I had every confidence that it was going to work. It isn’t really something you have to theorize, you just have to feel it and then do it.” Perhaps the most recognizable name in the new band is legendary dobro master Jerry Douglas, whose work with Krauss’ Union Station has helped earn him 12 of the music industry’s top honors and dozens more nominations, though the Sugarcanes’ Hall of Fame names don’t end there. 

Prolific songwriter and touring musician Jim Lauderdale holds down the lead guitar duties, while mandolin wizard Mike Compton and multi-instrumentalist Jeff Taylor round out the band. The album itself is a kind of piecemeal effort of spirited balladry, travel-noir and rollicking narratives; some songs Costello wrote for others and sat on for years, while others are newly written or written for other purposes. “How Deep is the Red,” “She Was No Good,” “She Handed Me a Mirror” and “Red Cotton” in particular are all songs Costello wrote for his unfinished opera based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fixation with singer Jenny Lind. He and the Sugarcanes literally blew through the studio, spending a mere three days recording. With such an accomplished cast around him, however, he wasn’t the least it surprised, as he described the experience as “responsive” and “flowing.” “We sat around in a semicircle where we could see each other very readily and I was able to direct the things,” Costello said. “If you were to look at the score, you would say that it was actually relatively complicated, but they played it with such confidence that it really helped me and that’s all you can ask from the people that you play alongside.”

ElvisCostello tapped T-Bone Burnett, a crew of Nashville heavyweights andhis own experience — not insignificant — to make Secret, Profane &Sugarcane. (photo by James O’Mara)

Despite being in the midst of a full-bore tour with his new accompaniment in tow, Costello will be making a rare solo appearance at this year’s Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival. Though he anticipates working the new material into his solo set, the idea of delving deep into his catalog and bringing on any of the numerous musicians he counts as friends that are also on the bill is enticing. In addition to Lauderdale hosting a stage for a day, pianist Allen Toussaint, with whom Elvis shared a past Bonnaroo performance, is scheduled to play. “There is every chance that we will try and have some dueting, or whatever is going on,” said Costello. “You know, there is a number of people I know that are playing that day, so I think it’s kind of highlyunlikely that it’ll be an entirely solo performance in the long run.”Not merely content only performing at huge events like Bonnaroo,Costello admits that he’s a bit of a festival junkie also and takesevery chance he has to sit in with or simply watch some of his favoriteperformers. The most recent example was at the Beale Street Festival inMemphis where he performed with Hubert Sumlin and Los Lobos and stoodby during sets by Al Green and Jerry Lee Lewis. With theregular tour resuming the following day at Cary’s Koka BoothAmpitheatre, he laments his lack of leisure time. “I only wish I didn’thave to leave for North Carolina; there’s a number of people that Iwant to see,” he said. “Unfortunately, a couple of them are playingexactly at the same time as I am.” Costello still plans to see as muchas possible in his short time there, however. “I’m going tosaddle up my pony and ride from stage to stage,” he said. Though whenasked if that was his golf cart to which he was referring, his responsearrived directly from the crisp British wit that has earned him legionsof fans. “No, a real pony,” he said.

Weregret that last week’s Felice Brothers’ review was absent the photocredit. That fantastic shot was taken by Sarah Smith and you can checkout more of her work at http://www.flickr.com/ photos/24690557@N08/.

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