Review of concert from 199-10-13: Chicago, IL, Park West
Daily Herald, 1999-10-14
- Mark Guarino


Elvis Costello's brash youth shines still, but as balladeer

By Mark Guarino
Daily Herald Music Critic

The recent "Saturday Night Live" anniversary special and its accompanying CD are reminders of who Elvis Costello once was - the brash young man who switched songs on live television in 1977, picking the one his label didn't want him to play ("Radio, Radio").

The Elvis Costello who played the Park West Wednesday night was older, balder and with fury set aside only for matters of the heart. He brought along longtime keyboardist Steve Nieve and they both played mostly romantic ballads, which were slower and sparse but punched with serious soul.

It's a direction Costello's settled for ever since last year's album-length collaboration with Burt Bacharach. That pairing followed Costello's best album in years, "All This Useless Beauty" (Warner Bros.) in 1996. Although that album brought hope Costello's literate pop smarts were at full power, the Bacharach album found him more interested in the role as sentimental balladeer.

As one, Costello had no need for a band Wednesday, which made the older songs he performed suffer. It's a symptom typical of a solo show unless, of course, the songs are radically changed - as when Bruce Springsteen recast "Born in the U.S.A." as a mournful dirge.

But hearing Costello play songs like "Pads, Paws and Claws" or "Beyond Belief" by himself was like an out-of-towner visiting Chicago, but eating deep dish pizza in Schaumburg. It tastes the same, but not quite.

He also played new songs, many that blended together, but in the same vein as the Bacharach collection. One, "Burned Sugar," he co-wrote with Carole King and was lush, romantic and perfect for a night lit low with candles.

In a way, Costello's voice is perfect for brooding, conversational ballads. His voice is brooding and conversational. It also trembles and breaks octaves if notes are held too long. So he was a natural. The vulnerability shadowed in songs like "What's Her Name Today?" was undeniably true.

Today, the phrase "like Elvis Costello" follows any songwriter who writes pop music that's a bit more clever and catchier than most. But today's Elvis Costello writes music clenched with roses, not fists. He plays again Friday at the Arie Crown Theatre and tickets are still available. If you want to hurt that good, go see him.

Daily Herald, Paddock Publications