Review of concert at 1999-05-24 - Vancouver, BC, Queen Elizabeth Theatre
Rolling Stone, 1999-06-02
- Shawn Connor


200x200 (17K)
This -- last -- year's model.

Elvis Costello

Queen Elizabeth Theater, Vancouver, May 24, 1999

 For just a moment, he looked like the Elvis of old -- this year's model circa 1978. It came at the end of the indisputably classic "Watching the Detectives," when, clutching his electric guitar, a thickened, black-suited Elvis Costello nearly disappeared in the shadows of the dimly lit Queen Elizabeth Theater stage and struck a pose that, in the half-light, was part angry young man, part praying mantis.

Or maybe it was just a trick of the imagination. Whatever the case, Costello's current Lonely World Tour -- the North American leg of which kicked off May 24 in Vancouver -- represents a further maturation of the artist who once said, in response to David Letterman's question of whether he was maturing: "I dunno. That sounds like cheese, doesn't it?"

The Lonely World Tour is also the songwriter's first since his collaboration (and subsequent concerts) with Burt Bacharach. That artistic union between old-school pop classicism and new wave rule-breaking represented something of a full circle for Costello, who snuck a serious reading of the Bacharach-David torch song "I Just Don't Know What to Do With Myself" onto 1978's Live Stiffs and risked the scorn of punk purists. This tour, it seems, is Costello's attempt to bridge, more than ever before, his early, spikey-haired persona with his more current, stubble-headed torch singer incarnation.

 Throughout the two-hour set, which included three rapturously received encores, Costello engaged in friendly banter (commenting on Victoria Day, the Canadian holiday with which his show coincided, he remarked, "In Dublin we don't celebrate Queen Victoria, we burn effigies of her"), introduced the newer songs ("Some people think Burt wrote the music and I wrote the lyrics. In fact we wrote both, and argued over the black and white keys") and continuously drew attention to the virtuoso contributions of his touring partner, long-time keyboardist Steve Nieve ("The maestro, Steve Nieve!"). And, beginning with a version of the Get Happy! chestnut "Temptation" right through to the very last song, an a cappella, mic-less rendition of the Mighty Like a Rose tune "Couldn't Call It Unexpected #4" that one might call unexpected, Costello mixed lesser-known songs with surefire crowd-pleasers.

Both the relative obscurities and "hits" benefited from the new, stripped-down arrangements of guitar, piano and voice. The good-natured rocker "Pads, Paws and Claws" from Spike and the dusty country-tinged singalong "Radio Sweetheart" (introduced as the first song he ever recorded) were distilled into the essence of pure, fun rock & roll, while "Watching the Detectives" was given dramatic new twists thanks to Costello's alternately liquid and dissonant electric guitar and Nieve's noirish piano runs. In its sparser form, "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea" sounded more raw and misanthropic than a Rammstein song, while "Veronica" -- no doubt the best pop number ever written about Alzheimer's -- was simply masterful. And let's not forget the wonderful versions of Costello classics like "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" and "Accidents Will Happen" and . . .

 Suffice it to say, it was a wonderful concert, with only the Painted From Memory songs proving problematic. Though a few of the tunes, notably "I Still Have That Other Girl" and the wonderful "Toledo" -- featuring a melody as good as any Costello has recorded -- stood up with the rest of the set, others bordered on the generic. It didn't help that, at times, the singer's voice was just too reedy and limited to reach the more challenging Bacharachan notes, and the result was like a dentist's drill to the cranium in the acoustically sublime Queen Elizabeth Theater. But give the man credit -- few other contemporary artists have shown themselves as willing to grow, have come so far and still have some distance left to run. And with no cheese in sight, either.

SHAWN CONNER(June 2, 1999)