Elvis Costello shines in Neil Young Project

At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Thursday, February 18. Continues February 19

Whoever coined the all-too-appropriate phrase “let the games begin” probably wasn’t thinking about the epic battle that played out between Canada and the United States at the Queen E on Thursday night, but it’s hard to imagine a more gripping contest—even on ice.

That’s probably not what producer Hal Willner had in mind when he came up with the idea for the Neil Young Project. In fact, in an earlier interview with the Straight, he expressed the hope that both of his “house bands”—Toronto’s Broken Social Scene and an ad hoc collection of ace New York session players—would wind up playing together. This did happen, on occasion, but more often the two groups took turns—highlighting, in the process, the cultural divide between their native lands.

The Canadians, as usual, were respectful and guileless and communally minded, as when Broken Social Scene’s Jason Collett sweet-talked the crowd into a goofy—but effective—exercise in creating an audio rainstorm out of finger snapping and knee slapping. The Yanks, as usual, were more individualistic and took greater artistic risks, as when singer and upright bassist Eric Mingus led a fantastically vivid avant-gospel version of Young’s minor masterpiece “For the Turnstiles”.

So who won the tourney?

A Brit.

But at least he’s our Brit: West Van resident Elvis Costello, a Londoner by birth, was one of two surprise guests and the undeniable star of a night that was in sore need of resuscitation after a run of unexceptional performances midway through its second act.

I knew it was coming—during intermission, I had scoped out the soundboard and discovered a set list in full public view. But I had no idea just how stunning Costello’s second appearance of the night would be. Sure, he’d given hints with his earlier rendition of “Love in Mind”, a major performance of a minor song during which he’d been in full Tony Bennett jazz-crooner mode. But when it came to the one-two punch of “Cowgirl in the Sand” and “Cinnamon Girl”, both from Young’s breakthrough Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere LP of 1969, he simply killed.

Barely in control of a big, blond Gibson guitar that squealed and snarled like it was possessed by old Shakey himself, Costello stalked the stage with a flamenco dancer’s élan. Even a ridiculous leopard-skin trilby didn’t undercut his sinister—and, yes, weirdly sexy—intensity; he’d probably skinned that cat himself.

The crowd, which had been drifting toward torpidity, rose to its feet and stayed there for the rest of the night.

There were other highlights, including James Blood Ulmer’s slurred but compellingly surreal take on “Scenery”, Teddy Thompson’s sweetly sung “I Believe in You”, and the arrival of the night’s other unannounced guest, Emily Haines, whose tough edge brought a new dimension to “A Man Needs a Maid”. A couple of Willner’s conceptual notions didn’t quite come off, such as the pairing of Ulmer and Lou Reed on an oddly tepid “Fuckin’ Up”. And there were a few out-and-out disappointments, such as Iron & Wine mainstay Sam Beam’s disappearing act and folk icon Vashti Bunyan’s disappearing voice.

It was a mixed bag, then. Somehow, though, this seems appropriate for a survey of the notoriously unpredictable Young’s oeuvre—and Costello’s star turn was genius. Elvis was in the house—and so, through him, was Neil.




Feb 19, 2010 at 5:35pm

Agree with most of the review - but Costello was announced formally a day or two before - no real surprise for those doing their homework. Wonder if anyone knows whatever happened to Sam Beam?


Feb 19, 2010 at 7:57pm

Great gig, Where was Colin James? He was on the insert bill of performers. Could of used his energy to flux up the lethargic crowd. Tickets were to pricey for what was delivered.

Roz Hart

Feb 20, 2010 at 12:31am

Bought my tix primarily to hear Sam Beam & was extremely ticked off no mention was made of why he wasn't there.


Feb 20, 2010 at 10:54am

his beard was considered a security threat


Feb 20, 2010 at 3:16pm

couldn't agree more: elvis costello's 2nd act saved the show. returning w/ his lame blaser, leopard-skin lid, massive blond hollow body gibson—a sartorial statement that he was well able to live up to—costello took it from a well-rehearsed, somewhat stayed tribute to a full on rock and roll show. his desire and ability to really play the music raised the stakes, reminding the audience that we were in the presence of musical greatness—dare i say, an olympic moment.


Feb 25, 2010 at 11:36am

My sister and I also went to see Sam Beam, but was crushed when he did not show. Even until the last song we thought maybe he would come out, but no. We even talked with the manager of the theater and she didn't know why Sam Beam wasn't there...although she did not know much as at first she thought Sam Beam was a "her"!