Allentown Morning Call, November 24, 2013
Elvis Costello still new wave in
More than any of his contemporaries who came out of the late 1970s new wave movement, Elvis Costello has been able to stay popular and vital. And he's done that largely by changing — broadening his base by singing collaborations, country and even standards with Burt Bacharach.
But the success of Costello's solo, largely acoustic, show Saturday at Easton's State Theatre came largely from the fact that the punk intensity and sensibilities that made his early records so great shone through much of the material, no matter its genre or the fact that it was stripped down.
And in some cases, the sparse arrangements revealed the depth of those songs.
In a dark suit and fedora, wearing histrademark glasses, Costello played a 29-song, two-hour-and-15-minute show that spanned his 35-year career.
It opened with two songs from his angry-young-man beginnings: "King Horse" from 1980's Get Happy and "Sneaky Feelings" from his 1977 debut My Aim Is True.
Both showed Costello's voice and delivery skills are still very much intact. His wail at the end of "King's Horse" got the first in a night of wild cheers from an appreciative sold-out crowd.
Even when he sang the later (2004) song "Either Side of the Same Town," slow, studied and emphatic, his delivery carried new wave trademarks of off-key hiccups and rearing back on a note.
Throughout the show, he would alternate deeper cuts — such as 1984's "Turning the Town Red," quiet but still punk, and 1982's "Kid About It," country-ish and invested – with hits such as "Everyday I Write the Book," one of the night's best, as he stepped away from the mic to sing unamplified.
(He said he sang the latter because the crowd was singing along so prettily, even though he "hates" it – not really, he said, he just wanted to be sure "my position as a bitter outsider is assured.")
In some cases, the solo acoustic setting enhanced even the more new-wave songs. "Next Time ‘Round" from 1986 was great – aged and matured, but imbued with new meaning by being so. Costello even sang it in his new wave, voice-breaking style.
But occasionally it also detracted. "Watching The Detectives" was still great, but lost some of its vitality.
He did a four-song mini-set seated cross-legged in a recliner. It included a good and emphatic "White Knuckles" and strongly sung "Little Palaces," but also took Costello off track, with a tin-pan-alley, Leon Redbone version of "Walking My Baby Back Home."
That style also provided some of the show's weakest moments on "A Slow Drag with Josephine" ("There's not too many shows you get two whistles," he said after a whistle interlude) and especially "Jimmie Standing in the Raid," which closed with a segment of "Brother Can You Spare a Dime" (though the crowd gave a partial standing ovation to the latter, which he also finished unamplified.)
He explained his doing those songs by saying, "In a world that can contain Miley and Rick James, I know what gets me excited," and seemed to address it in "God's Comic" with the lyric, "I prefer the angry earlier ones."
Calls for requests also brought a disappointment: "Bedlam" from 2004, played on hollow-bodied guitar to which he added a very good looped guitar solo. But in a show so long and deep, he skipped important songs such as "Less than Zero," "Pump It Up," "Radio Radio" and his biggest U.S. hit, "Veronica," which seems as if it would be made for a solo acoustic show.
Costello played two encores, the first containing two of his biggest hits and best songs of the night. "Watching The Detectives," with him again playing looped hollow-bodied electric, became a guitar showcase.
And "Allison," the first notes of which drew cheers, was the show's centerpiece. Slow and spare, it was one of those songs intensified by the presentation, and Costello sang it exceptionally well, with the audience pin-drop quiet. Costello followed it with a haunting and heartbreaking cover of Bobby Charles' "I Hope."
The second encore stretched nearly 40 minutes, and was great. It opened with 1979's "Green Shirt," followed by a great "(The Angels Want to Wear My) Red Shoes." "Femme Fatale" was piercingly quiet, then a strong, electric "I'm Not Angry" and a wonderful "Tripwire," sung slow on electric guitar.
Costello closed with "If I Could Believe," then two songs he said he chose to "close with … because this is how I feel."
"For The Stars," with him at a keyboard, had Costello crooning, reaching a high note at the end. And the closing "The Puppet Has Cut the Strings" from his new disc Wise Up Ghost was just him singing with sparse accompaniment, the crowd silent.
It showed that even though he's no longer angry or a young man (he's 59), and occasionally gets off track, at his best Costello still is able to connect.
Costello plays at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 25 at F.M. Kirby Center in Wilkes-Barre.
Allentown Morning Call, November 24, 2013
Photo by Brian Hineline.