If I saw this performance on the David Letterman show when it first aired in June 2007 and didn't know a lick about Elvis Perkins or the band that performs with him or his amazing album "Ash Wednesday," I'd have been flummoxed. Absolutely ambushed. It should have come with a warning: "The performance you are about to see is haunting and cathartic and will wring the tears out of you uncontrollably."
Watch this and be mesmerized. By how a band can work within the framework of the clinical and cynical "in-studio performance" and still wring hot wet tears and emotion from a song that's also shortened from its 6+ minute album version down to four for broadcast length.
It's his phrasing. Bob Dylan made it okay to communicate in non-musical ways. Talk your way out if you don't want to sing. Perkins's voice has that 4AM hushed last stand quality. You can imagine standing before him, exhausted, in the doorway of a dark bedroom where the sheets are cooling or amid the empty beer bottles at a wobbly kitchen table; the cadence of his words and how he pauses each lyric mid-sentence like he knows what he's saying is true, and that it may stop his heart if he does say everything, but also if he doesn't.
It's the music. Each element is introduced separately to build this aural groundswell of emotion and feeling. And with a shrewd dash of showmanship and wink to Talking Heads and their Stop Making Sense concert film, each musician takes the stage separately and systematically fleshes out the song.
It's the spine of the standup bass, the pulse of the light drumbeat, the subconscious of the harmonium, and the ray of hope that is the trumpet's final cry in the song's finale. Not even Letterman's laconic shtick can ruin the mood.
Every time I watch this I can't stop crying. It's EXACTLY they type of song you expect to find descending upon Jack Taylor midway through one of Ken Bruen's novels: a devastatingly beautiful work of sad joy, or joyous sadness, that doesn't reconcile, but compels you to keep it close. Expect shivers.