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Critics' Choice

Photo by Carl Scheffel/MSG Photos

By Phil Gallo

When positive reports filtered in from the recent Desert Trip, I got to thinking about how impressive it is that acts who have been performing for 40 or 50 years still remain relevant whether it's through new material,  the prescient qualities of their classics or just the intensity with which they perform.

The Rolling Stones, The Who, Bob Dylan and Neil Young are acts I have been going to see since the mid-1970s, first as a fan and later as a reviewer. In many cases, it’s hard to shake the visceral impact those acts have on a young, impressionable listener, whether it’s through the records or the live performances, and in some way, as a critic, there’s a bar they set that you always want to see them surpass.

It got me to thinking: What about acts I have been going to see for 30 or 40 years who never achieved the superstar status of the Desert Trip Six? Do they still have relevance?

As luck would have it, four acts I have enthusiastically followed since the 1970s—Elvis Costello, Sting, David Bromberg and Gregg Allman— were booked to play New York within a seven-day stretch. (Allman, unfortunately, had to postpone his City Winery residency). Let’s put it to the test.

Costello, who played two nights at the Beacon Theater, had the bill most likely to tap into nostalgia; his “Imperial Bedroom and Other Chambers” tour obviously meant his 1982 album would be the spine of the show. But rather than play Imperial Bedroom start to finish, Costello moved around his catalog while performing all but one of its 15 songs—“Boy With a Problem” was left out—surrounding the album’s smartly crafted pop rock with a healthy dose of songs from the five albums that preceded it and its ’83 successor Punch the Clock. Late in the 2-hour, 45-minute show, he played three songs from the musical he’s working on, a stage adaptation of A Face in the Crowd, which he hopes will be mounted next year.

As concerts that feature a revisiting of an album go, this was brilliant. Imperial Bedroom, like its predecessor Trust, has a specific band sound courtesy of producer Geoff Emerick, The Beatles’ engineer. Costello worked around the album’s singular sonic identity by mixing up the song presentations—most performances featured his trio The Imposters, but he moved between rhythm guitar and piano, sometimes solo and sometimes with Steve Nieve and/or his backup singers; it made the night feel consistently fresh.

Remember, Imperial Bedroom and Trust solidified Costello as a songwriting craftsman—yes, he would return to the nasty, biting rock of his younger self within a few years, but these two albums reflect a deep knowledge of songwriting styles and an ear for classic record production. 

Revisiting it now, on the heels of his impressive biography in which he carefully detailed every influence on his music, makes considerable sense in the wake of his last three records—the experiment with The Roots and two File Under: Americana discs. Getting to Broadway means demonstrating an ability to write for characters and convey their emotional states, a feat he achieved impeccably on Imperial Bedroom.

Sting’s show, an iHeartRadio promo gig at Irving Plaza, lasted only an hour but provided a fair sense of how well he can still tap into the songwriting styles he employed on The Police’s first two albums and combine that energy with his more worldly concerns.

That “Next to You,” the lead–off track from The Police’s debut Outlandos d’Amour, was one of three Police tunes played, which supplied a perfect comparison—the new single “I Can’t Stop Thinking About You” is its wiser, older cousin. “Message in a Bottle” and “Every Breath You Take” bookended the night and in new songs “Down, Down, Down,” “Petrol Head” and “One Fine Day,” Sting connected with the dynamics, pop hooks and intensity that defined his trio’s best work. No surprise, he played bass the whole night.

Of course, instead of singing strictly about love, he tackled climate change, a 19th century cross-dresser, a trucker obsessed with sex and religion and Europe’s migrant situation, but hey, that’s Sting for you.

Bromberg, too, was in album release mode at the 815-seat New York Society for Ethical Culture auditorium, having just put out The Blues, The Whole Blues and Nothing But the Blues, his third since his 2007 return after 17 years spent in the violin business.

I’ll admit that when I first encountered Bromberg and his music in 1975, it was his deft bounce between blues and bluegrass, fiddle tunes and folk music, pathos and humor. That he did this with A-quality musicianship made him unlike anyone on the singer-songwriter scene. He was unclassifiable then, Americana now.

Perhaps that’s the reasoning behind his sticking with the blues for half the 90-minute show. Bromberg and his eight-piece band played eight blues tunes in a row, highlighted by his spirited version of Blind Willie McTell’s “Dyin’ Crapshooter’s Blues” and a swinging take on Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Eyesight to the Blind,” before letting loose and playing bluegrass, an English drinking song, some country and dabbling in some traditional jazz interplay among the four horn players. In the long run, the night was about musicianship and solos—lots of ‘em—and they closed with an encore that no one will forget, an unamplified, gentle rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

The three shows reaffirmed the faith we place in musicians as fans, that they can reconnect us with our collective pasts without pandering. These concerts were nothing like the shows I saw them play in the ‘70s or ‘80s or ‘90s and for that I’m grateful Shows don’t have to be greatest hits events to make them worthwhile.

While writing this piece, the news arrived that Leonard Cohen had died. I only saw him once, back when he was attempting to find a place in rock music with a groove, and it was a show I didn’t care for. Had I seen one of his more recent performances, I’d have the perspective I know have with Elvis, Sting, Bromberg and countless others. So do yourself a favor: Go see a musician you haven’t seen in awhile. It will do your soul some good.