The Speaking Clock Revue -- Concert Review
Wednesday, Oct. 20
Beacon Theater, New York
One can only wish that all benefit concerts boasted the stellar musicianship and smooth seamlessness of “The Speaking Clock Revue,” conceived by producer T Bone Burnett.
Featuring a spectacular lineup including the newly partnered Elton John and Leon Russell, John Mellencamp, Elvis Costello, Gregg Allman, Ralph Stanley, Jeff Bridges and others, the evening — benefiting music and arts education in public schools and presented in association with Participant Media (responsible for the acclaimed documentary “Waiting for “Superman”) — boasted more than three hours of musical highlights.
Hosted by Costello, who brought to the proceedings the same depth of musical knowledge and gift for amusing banter that he displays on his Sundance Channel talk show, the show was done in a revue format, featuring a house band that included such superb players as drummer Jim Keltner and guitarist Marc Ribot. Also providing musical accompaniment was the terrific bluegrass quintet the Punch Brothers, who delivered a short set of their own. (“Don’t worry, we’ll get through our stuff quickly,” leader/mandolin player Chris Thile assured the crowed, unnecessarily.)
Costello, who kept comically referring to Burnett as “my taller, smarter, older brother,” kicked off the show with “Brilliant Mistake,” accompanied by rising stars the Secret Sisters, who later showcased their crystalline harmonies on numbers like a gorgeous rendition of Bill Monroe’s mournful “The One I Love Is Gone.”
Mellencamp, commenting that “this is for the children and the education they’re not getting,” superbly delivered several numbers from his most recent albums, demonstrating that his newer material has greater depth even if lacking the pop hooks that made him a star; Bridges displayed an infectious enthusiasm with several songs from “Crazy Heart”; and Jim James of My Morning Jacket provided movingly aching vocals on a pair of solo acoustic numbers.
The audience gave perhaps its biggest cheers to a frail-looking Gregg Allman, returning to the venue in which his band has performed on innumerable occasions for the first time since his recent liver transplant. After thanking his unknown donor, he shakily sang a few numbers from his upcoming blues-oriented album before rousing the crowd with the classic “Midnight Rider.”
Costello, accompanied by the Secret Sisters and Karen Elson, also previewed numbers from his upcoming release — produced, as was the case with much of the evening’s music, by Burnett — including the moving “Forgotten Man,” dedicated to his father.
Country legend Ralph Stanley, 82, proved his agelessness with stirring renditions of such gospel songs as “Lift Him Up” and the classic “Man of Constant Sorrow.”
Elton John and Leon Russell, touring to promote their collaborative album “The Union,” were the evening’s de facto headliners. Facing each other at dueling pianos (Elton’s, not surprisingly, was much bigger), they performed a half-dozen new songs ranging from the mournful Civil War-themed ballad “Gone to Shiloh” (with Allman providing a guest vocal) to the rollicking “Monkey Suit” with a youthful urgency that belied their ages.
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