Ann Arbor News, April 24, 1984

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An acoustic Elvis Costello is intellectually red hot

Harmon Mitchell

He has one of the most versatile and impressive backup groups in the business but, in front of 3,300 of his biggest fans at Hill Auditorium Sunday night, a relaxed and affable Elvis Costello proved that, even without them, he is still a performer with attractions.

In a tour de force demonstration of songwriting talent and vocal prowess, Costello performed about 30 titles that covered his career, from "Alison" through his latest songs, along with cover versions from writers as diverse as June Tabor and Charlie Rich.

The result was a show that was understatedly staged, but intellectually red hot, sometimes with double entendre (as in "Inch By Inch"), sometimes with socio-political relevance. And if the title he proposed for the next album "Nancy (With the Laughing Face)," is a joke, it shows he is as interested as ever in the politics of relationships, whether they be interpersonal or international.

The two new songs he introduced may well have been the high points of the evening. "Worthless Thing" decries a music business grown perverse, citing the "Memphis grave robbers and Las Vegas body snatchers" who figuratively plunder the corpse of his namesake.

He saved his strongest new statement for the very close of the show, as he observed in "Peace in Our Time" that peace may have to be purchased at the highest possible price, observing snidely of the American political scene, "You've already got a spaceman in the White House — what do you want another one for?"

Moving among a grand piano, an acoustic guitar, an electric piano and an electric guitar (a row of vintage guitars stood unused at the back of the stage), Costello proved to be full of surprises, starting with his appearance onstage a mere 15 minutes after the end of T Bone Burnett's fine opening set.

As most of the audience scrambled for their seats, Costello (dressed in a black leather jacket, black pants and red and black shoes) sang "Accidents Will Happen."

Even though most of the assembled could probably claim to be fairly faithful fans, they seemed surprised by the power of Costello's vocals.

Still, Costello tempered the somewhat awestruck air of his audience with humor. Bumping his electric guitar with his acoustic, be touched the strings to stop their ringing, admonishing. "There's no jamming in this band." At the beginning of the second encore (there were three in all — each a short set in itself), T Bone Burnett joined Costello, who introduced them as the "Coward Brothers."

The tour is as much a departure for Burnett as it is for Costello, and both say that, after this tour, they have a lot of work waiting for them, as Burnett prepares to produce a couple of groups (including a Los Lobos album) and Costello will return to the U.S., with the Attractions to support the new album.

Backstage after the show, Costello said that the brief tour was something he'd wanted to do for a long time, adding, "I haven't played alone in eight years," and that deciding how to structure the show had him at something of a loss. Considering his recorded repertoire stands at well over 130 songs for his nine albums and numerous singles, the difficulty is understandable.

He was also quite modest on the subject of choosing to play piano onstage, claiming that it was largely to alleviate any possible boredom resulting from a guitar-dominated show. "I'm not a very good piano player," he said, adding, "But then, I'm no Segovia, either."

It is fairly safe to assume that few, if any, unfavourable comparisons to Van Cliburn or Segovia were voiced at Hill Auditorium. In rock music, there are standards of artistic, creative and musical achievement as demanding as any classical discipline. Sunday night, Elvis Costello met — and raised — those standards.

The Office of Major Events and WRIF presented Elvis Costello, with special guest T Bone Burnett, in concert at Hill Auditorium Sunday night.

Tags: Hill AuditoriumUniversity Of MichiganAnn ArborT Bone BurnettAlisonJune TaborCharlie RichInch By InchWorthless ThingPeace In Our TimeAccidents Will HappenThe Coward BrothersLos LobosThe AttractionsGoodbye Cruel WorldFrank Sinatra


The Ann Arbor News, April 24, 1984

Harmon Mitchell reviews Elvis Costello, solo, Sunday, April 22, 1984, Hill Auditorium, University Of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Mitchell also describes post-show backstage scene.


1984-04-24 Ann Arbor News clipping 01.jpg

1984-04-24 Ann Arbor News clipping 02.jpg

Backstage with Elvis Costello

Harmon Mitchell

In what was looking more and more like a trial re-staging of the stateroom scene from the Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera, the backstage reception room at Hill Auditorium grew more and more crowded with at least two (and quite possibly three) dozen fans, media people and crew. Every time you turned around, more people were trying to come through the door. It was where the food was. It was where the beer was.

But most of all, it was where Elvis Costello was.

There he sat, at a closed and covered grand piano. He seamed a little bit bored but more than willing to be friendly and answer just about any question that anyone in the room had to ask.

Almost any question that is. As people surged through the room, the atmosphere was a little like a press conference. Except for the fact that most of the people in the room were complimenting him on the show and asking questions like, "Did you have to take voice lessons to save your voice?" To which Costello would drawl in a London accent, "No, actually my voice sounds stronger because it's easier to sing without trying to sing over the band."

One woman, right behind the front row of questioners, bobbed up and waved her arm. "Oh Elvis! Elvis!" she called brightly.


"My friend here," she said, pulling a man forward by the arm, "is having his birthday today, and it would be so nice if you could sing 'Happy Birthday' to him."

The conversation in the room ground to a halt. Costello had just performed for well over 90 minutes, and the request seemed, well, a little gauche.

But Costello merely smiled and diffused the moment with a mild joke about not knowing how to play the song on the piano and the room went back to its rather protozoan surging and question asking.

Amid the constant autograph signing and congratulations, a few serious questions were asked — although they didn't always get serious answers.

His next album would be called "Reagan Go Home!" be joshed. Now come on, what's it really going to be called?

With a cryptic smile, be answered "Nancy (With the Laughing Face)." And with that dual Reagan/Sinatra joke, he went back to the more serious questions.

The idea of the solo acoustic tour "was something I'd wanted to do for some time," he said. "I finally had a chance finishing the new album and we booked the dates."

But the album won't be solo, and "we'll be coming back around again in the summer."

Finally both Costello and T Bone Burnett went out in back of Hill Auditorium and signed autographs before getting in their limousine and leaving. From someone who used to combine the obsessive privacy of a Garbo with acid invective, the novelty of such normalcy is downright revelatory.


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