The Huntington Beach skateboarder-turned-singer/songwriter is touring on the back of his latest LP, Unfamiliar Faces (QRO review), his follow-up to his successful 2005 debut, Songs We Sing. He may have previously hit South America, and is going to be in Australia in a few weeks, but you couldn’t say he didn’t find a home made for him in New York on March 3rd, thanks to the loyal, engaged audience.
Costa’s set was split right down the middle, half Faces, half Songs, usually playing a couple off one record, then a couple off the other. He opened rather softly with the sweet swing of Songs’s “Yellow Taxi”, before taking it up a notch with a version of “The Ballad of Miss Kate” that was far more rollicking than on Songs. There was a definite alt-country rock ‘n’ roll atmosphere in the air at Bowery (reminiscent of another Bowery (QRO venue review) performance by another Matt, Matt Pond PA – QRO live review). That carried from “Miss Kate” into a growing version of Faces’s “Lilacs”, and it made numbers that were sometimes too simple on record, like Faces’s “Trying To Lose My Mind” bigger and better.
For catchy Faces single “Mr. Pitiful”, Costa switched temporarily to piano on the “song about a very dramatic person.” That was the beginning of Costa speaking directly with the crowd, though it was his touring guitarist who was the most engaged at first – Costa didn’t want to start playing Songs’s indie-blues-drive “Behind The Moon” until his guitarist had finished his conversation with a young lady up front. She referenced where she worked, and Costa replied, “I used to work at a movie theater, and they said I stole money. They accused me of stealing ten dollars. I said, ‘If I wanted ten dollars…’” Someone in the band then added in the pause, “You’d steal it,” which made everyone crack up.
While the bright Faces track “Cigarette Eyes” shone even stronger live, the record’s slow eponymous track really brought things down – Costa even admitted as much, saying, “We’re going to bring things down a notch” as his drummer and keyboardist temporarily left the stage. But all was forgiven with a powerful Songs four-set afterwards, which included singles “Sunshine”, “Cold December”, and “Sweet Thursday”. Costa jokingly complained about the set-list, saying, “We’ve got these lists that tell us what songs to do in order, and I didn’t make them – God made them. He said, ‘You have to do it this way,’ and I said, ‘I don’t want to do it that way.’ So I guess that makes me sacrilegious…” However, he stuck almost entirely to the printed list, only replacing “These Arms” with “Thursday”.
But what was perhaps sweetest wasn’t Costa’s engagement with the crowd – but the crowd’s engagement with Costa. For a number of songs, the audience broke into a full-fledged sing-a-long. For Songs’s “Sweet Rose”, Costa was able to lean away from the mike during the chorus, and just let the crowd carry the tune. That held up through rollicking numbers like the into-the-encore-break “Emergency Call”, as well as softer songs like finisher “Vienna”. And even when they didn’t sing, there were huge cheers with the very first notes, the crowd immediately recognizing such pieces as “Miss Magnolia” and “Astair”.
There’s an upbeat ‘Middle Americana’ feel to Costa’s music, almost a musical rejoinder to fellow skateboarder-turned-artist Jason Lee’s cheery trailer park My Name Is Earl on NBC. That endears him to a wide crowd who put their heart into his music as much as he does.