Examiner.com: T Bone Burnett brings 'The Speaking Clock Revue' to the Beacon

Examiner.com By Jim Bessman

The pairing of Elton John and Leon Russell was the marquee attraction, what with their new album The Union garnering much notice. And sure enough, the piano-playing pair's six-song closing set at last night's The Speaking Clock Revue show at the Beacon Theater was grand.

But the high point really came halfway through the first set, when emcee Elvis Costello outlined event producer T Bone Burnett's 30-year background in films, then brought out Jeff Bridges, whom he worked with on the music side on the unforgettable films The Big Lebowski and last year's Crazy Heart. Bridges' Kris Kristofferson-like performance of the latter's key song "Fallin' & Flyin'" was right out of the movie; when Costello and Burnett traipsed out together playing guitars after the first verse the moment was magical and consecrated by Bridges' recognition of the duo as the Coward Brothers--the name they've used for their many music collaborations.

Burnett, of course, had a hand in producing nearly every artist on the bill starting with Costello, who opened the evening with "Brilliant Mistake," from his Burnett-produced 1986 album King Of America. Indeed, Brooklyn's progressive acoustic group the Punch Brothers, who followed, and English singer-songwriter Karen Elson were about the only artists on the bill who haven't worked with him--at least for now.

For the most part, every artist did two songs, mostly backed by "The Speaking Clock Revue Ensemble" led by guitarist Marc Ribot and featuring guitars, pedal steel, mandolin, upright bass, keyboards, banjo and two drummers (including the great Jim Keltner). Not everything worked: Roots-pop duo the Secret Sisters' version of Johnny Cash's "Big River" was drowned out by a big wall-of-sound arrangement additionally buttressed by the Punch Brothers.

The ensemble wisely let well enough alone during My Morning Jacket's Jim James' solo acoustic songs. John Mellencamp, however, ably played it both ways. Accompanied by his splendid guitarist Andy York, he rocked solid with the ensemble on "Troubled Land" (Elson adding backup vocal support) and then did a beautiful solo acoustic turn on "Save Some Time To Dream," which he prefaced with a pointed dedication to America's children "and the education they're not getting."

Education was Burnett's motivation for staging The Speaking Clock Revue, which also played Boston on Oct. 16. Presented with Participant Media in conjunction with the release of the Davis Guggenheim-directed documentary film Waiting For "Superman"--which explores innovative approaches by education reformers--the concerts are raising money for The Participant Foundation to support music and arts education programming in public schools.

Burnett outlined the cause while the set was changed for the John/Russell finale. The two then strode to their opposing pianos and commenced their spectacular The Union mini-set, the ensemble broadened by a four-piece horn section and four female backup singers. The standout was "Gone To Shiloh," a Civil War-themed song that featured Beacon Theater favorite Gregg Allman, who closed the first set, on guest vocals.

Extra credit should go to ringmaster Costello, who's practically made a side career out of hosting such events, not to mention his Spectacle: Elvis Costello With…. TV series. Besides his own stellar performances (some from his forthcoming Burnett-produced album National Ransom), he kept the proceedings wittily rolling along, then turned serious in introducing 83 year-old Ralph Stanley.

Calling himself "a visitor in your country" who frequently courts criticism for speaking his mind on American issues, Englishman Costello proudly made note of his two New York City-born sons and guaranteed that they would be "raised right" by learning to always love and respect bluegrass legend Stanley.

Accompanied by his longtime guitarist James Shelton, Stanley sang some of his classics, capped by "Man Of Constant Sorrow," the key song from O Brother, Where Art Thou?, in which he starred. And who produced that movie's celebrated soundtrack? T Bone Burnett, of course.