It may have started like a proper greatest-hits revue — "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes)" strummed as Pete Townshend would play the guitar on an Everly Brothers record. But apparently, Elvis Costello's been doing some writing, and Friday's acoustic appearance at the Scottsdale Civic Center Amphitheater found him showcasing plenty of new songs while blowing the dust off a number of lesser-known treasures that may have been lost on the guy in the back who kept requesting "Pump it Up" — or "Turn it Up," as he frequently bellowed.
The second song in was the soulful country ballad, "Either Side of the Same Town" from 2004's "The Delivery Man", the first of several songs that made the most of his soulful falsetto. From there, he shifted gears into a raucous "45" from 2002's "When I Was Cruel", running his acoustic through some thick distortion on the loud parts and pulling it back until it was barely a whisper on the verses.
He introduced the next song, "Down Among the Wine and Spirits" from last year's model, "Secret, Profane & Sugarcane", with a funny story about how the song had been based on some advice his father, also a musician, handed down. That particular bit of advice was about how fleeting fame can be, but first he shared the other musical advice his dad had passed along. "Never ever look up to a note," he said. "Always look down." Then, he laughed and admitted he still had no idea what that meant.
Costello's biggest U.S. pop hit, "Veronica," followed, strummed more like a great lost Buddy Holly single and blessed with an excellent twist on the melody in the final verse. And then, it was on to the first of several new songs, a dramatic country-blues song apparently called "Condemned Man" that featured one of his most urgent vocals of the night as he spat out lines as impassioned as "Outside they're wailing, 'Repent, repent, repent, and believe.' There's a telephone ringing but no chance of reprieve."
Another huge hit followed, introduced with "Here's a song I hate!" then, "Well, I used to like it." Thankfully, his friend, Ron Sexsmith, has brought him around on "Everyday I Write the Book," which sounded great if not as awe-inspiring as the version he played at that Police show a couple of summers ago.
He dropped the tuning on the bottom string of his acoustic for a swampy trip through the blasphemous brilliance of "Bedlam," the second highlight pulled from "The Delivery Man". After spitting out lines like "I've got this harlot that I'm stuck with carrying another man's child," in the voice of the biblical Joseph (of Joseph and Mary fame), he told the crowd, "Thank you so much. That's my Christmas single."
Then, he gestured to the chair surrounded by guitars that had been vacant all night. "And now I would like to introduce my very special guest," he announced before taking a seat. "It's me."
Another new one, "Jimmie Standing in the Rain," was introduced as the story of "a cowboy singer traveling the English music halls in 1937," and the music followed suit. The next song, also new and apparently titled "Josephine," was set up with a joke about it being "what rock and roll sounded like in about 1921," and it wasn't far off, with its country-blues picking and whistling solo.
An intensely spooky "Watching the Detectives" was amazing, making the most of a pedal that allowed him to loop his guitar parts until he'd constructed a massive, cacophonous wall of noise before pulling it back to sing the final verse, which still sends shivers after all these years.
A spirited "Radio Sweetheart" emerged as a crowd-pleasing highlight, its singalong chorus giving way to an even more spirited singalong on Van Morrison's classic "Jack Wilson Said."
"God's Comic" was hushed and hilarious, putting the focus where it should be, on the lyrics. He ended the song with a call-and-response with audience, repeating "Now, I'm dead" as a siren began to wail in the distance. "Alison" followed in similarly understated fashion, the audience singing along where the words were supposed to be falling while Costello was working the phrasing to his own dramatic ends. Then, he kicked on the fuzz for an urgent "High Fidelity" before ending the set with a playful romp through the sexual hijinks of "Sulphur to Sugarcane," which, as he gleefully announced, made for "two whistling solos in one night!"
Costello eased into the encore with a seated, cocktail-jazz performance of a 1930s song made popular by Frank Sinatra, "All or Nothing at All," its chord progression threatening to break into a medley of that and his own song in that genre, "Almost Blue." Another new one, "The Spell that You Cast," was a trashy, Chuck Berry-style rocker, giving way to yet another new one, a breathtaking ballad apparently titled "One Bell Ringing."
A spirited "(What So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?" was triumphant — a crowd-pleasing highlight, as expected — followed by a slow, dramatic "So Like Candy" that somehow segued into an encore-closing version of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," the old Animals hit Costello so memorably made his own on the "King of America" album.
While I'm sure the "Turn It Up" guy would have gladly traded any number of those new songs -- and even the lesser-known album cuts — for a "Pump It Up," "Radio Radio," "Oliver's Army" or "The Other Side of Summer," it's kind of refreshing to see a performer of Costello's generation doing concerts on his terms, sharing new songs and putting some actual thought into which of his lesser-known songs it might be fun to hear. "Radio Sweetheart?" Made my night. Of course, it doesn't hurt to have Costello's sense of showmanship, which made the new songs go down easy and the staples that much more rewarding for the fans that have already seen him do "Alison" 30-odd times.