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.