Allentown Morning Call, November 3, 2018
Elvis Costello, back from cancer scare,
Over a career of more than 40 years, singer Elvis Costello has been a punk provocateur, a seminal new wave voice, a contemporary pop singer and even a classic crooner. And there have been fans of each of Costello's career ventures.
So how to satisfy everyone coming to see Costello kick off the North American leg of his latest tour at Sands Bethlehem Event Center to support yet another venture – his very strong new disc Look Now?
On Friday, Costello did his best to do just that, playing a two-hour, 25-song show that touched on phases throughout his career, both deep cuts and hits, as well as nine of the new disc's 12 songs.
And to the delight of the nearly sold-out crowd, Costello did them all well – not afraid to revisit not only the songs of his earlier career, but also carrying the spirit of them into the newer songs.
Perhaps after surviving cancer surgery that canceled the end of his European leg, the 64-year-old Costello was emboldened, or re-invigorated.
Either way, his performance, and voice, was stronger than when he played the Sands in 2016.
Backed by a crack three-man band and two female singers, Costello opened the show with "This Year's Girl" from his 1978 sophomore disc, This Year's Model, with its swirling synth reviving that new wave sound.
He followed that with two 1980s deeper cuts: a forceful "Honey, Are You Straight or Are You Blind," and "Clubland," with Costello's ‘70s rocking edge. On the latter, Costello even held a finger to his nose to hush the crowd as he played a scrubbing lead and sang with a "Watching the Detectives" affect.
With that introduction, Costello welcomed the crowd, saying it was fitting to open the "Don't Look Now" tour at the Sands: "the nativity of a new show in Bethlehem."
He followed with two cuts from the new disc, singing with a crying croon on "Don't Look Now" (the crowd cheered loudly) and equally as well, in addition to a strong turn on lead guitar, on "Burnt Sugar is So Bitter."
Later offerings from the new disc were even better. The disc's new single "Under Lime" had very much that 1977 vibe that ushered in new wave. "Why Won't Heaven Help Me" was pretty rocking. The slow guitar-and-piano "Stripping Paper" was a clear reminder or the Elvis of old, and the slow, sensitive "Suspect My Tears" had some of his best vocals of the night, as he reached for a falsetto.
As if to further display his voice, Costello even did a slow, achingly good, crooned version of Burt Bacharach's 1960s song "The Look of Love."
Early in the show, the older songs Costello played were nearly all deeper cuts: "New Lace Sleeves" from 1981's Trust; a rocking, new-wavey "(I Don't Want to Go To) Chelsea," with good lead guitar.
So that when he did play a hit – his 1977 U.S. breakthrough "Watching the Detectives," (in the same darkened-stage presentation as the last time he was at the Sands) it got a huge crowd reaction – and deservedly so.
Costello later did the same with later songs: A largely voice-and-acoustic guitar version of 1986's "Indoor Fireworks" to a big cheer from the crowd, and closed the main set with a faster, more rocking "Can You Hear Me" from his last disc, 2013's Wise Up Ghost that segued right into the hit "Pump It Up," thumping, urgent and rocking.
Costello's encore stretched eight songs and 40 minutes.
It opened with one of the night's best: a barely instrumented, mostly a cappella "Alison," with his two female backup singers. It got a huge cheer. Then a stark and spare, piano-and-voice "Accidents Will Happen," on which he reached for a high and powerful end note.
He used that same vocal approach on "I Still Have That Other Girl," which he also wrote with Bacharach, – really singing it --and paired that with a new Bacharach co-write, "He's Given Me Things," from the new disc.
Costello flubbed the start of that song slightly, and after saying "this is the first night," re-started it dramatically better. He followed that with another early deeper cut, "Green Shirt," which started stripped, then built as the crowd clapped along.
"Yeah! Are you ready?" he asked the crowd, and wound down the show with the new, R&B rocking "Mr. and Mrs. Hush."
The show closed with two wonderful songs: "Everyday I Write the Book," stretched to 17 minutes with band introductions (as well as a snippet of the 1971 soul hit "Mr. Big Stuff.")
And then a six-minute version of his 1979 hit "(What's So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love and Understanding," with a wonderful chorus coda.
That completed Costello's journey of giving everyone what they wanted. The fact that he could do that, and do it as well as he did, shows how important Costello's music has been, and how much he still has left.
Copyright © 2018, The Morning Call
The Morning Call, November 3, 2018
Photo by Brian Hineline.