Fiona Apple is seldom at a loss for words. An hour after playing a VH1 tribute to Elvis Costello at the Taj Mahal's Mark Etess Arena in 2005, the enigmatic Apple was trying to explain how thrilling it was to share a stage with the man formerly known as Declan McManus.
The incredibly gifted vocalist-pianist detailed what it was like to my enthralled then seven-year old daughter Jillian, who only made the trip and crashed the after-show party because she was obsessed with Apple.
"I was so nervous playing with Elvis Costello," Apple confessed. "I was shaking up there from nerves. He's just unlike anybody else. It was such a thrill to experience something like that."
Apple paused and smiled broadly as she put her arm around my daughter. "Maybe you'll be able to experience something like that someday," Apple said. "It's pretty cool."
The only other children at the swanky bash were Billie Joe Armstrong's sons, who are just a bit older than Jillian. The leader of Green Day held court as did Death Cab For Cutie. Each were selected by the producer of the show, who has good taste, to work with Costello.
Of course, the only person who didn't make the scene was Costello. Somehow that was fitting. Costello doesn't revel in the limelight or take advantage of the excesses rock has to offer.
Costello is an icon, who burst onto the scene in 1977 with the exceptional debut album, My Aim Is True. The reggae flavored "Watching the Detectives" was his first hit. The wordplay, the humor and the big hook offered a hint at what a special recording artist Costello would become.
Costello, who will perform Saturday, March 8, at Caesars Atlantic City, kept taking it up a notch. The albums This Year's Model (1978) and 1979's Armed Forces are filled with songs that are edgier and deeper than the cuts from his initial release.
Uber producer Nick Lowe, who is an exceptional singer-songwriter in his own right, produced Costello's first five albums, including 1981's overlooked Trust.
"There's nobody like Elvis," Lowe said. "But I didn't get it initially. When he brought a tape into Stiff [Records], I wasn't crazy about it. When I broke down his songs, I thought there were too many words and there were way too many chords. When I started producing him, I was difficult. I was stern. I would say that this and that has to go. I tried to streamline what he did. But things changed and they needed to. He was just that good. I finally figured it out. And he had a tremendous band, the Attractions. There was this electricity about them. There were lots of disagreements and, well, I did my best to keep the peace. He is tremendous. He's all that you want to be as a singer-songwriter, leader of a band. He's simply brilliant."
What's most remarkable about Costello is how incredibly consistent he's been for nearly 40 years. Clunkers have been rare. He's always picked it up when he's needed to take that step.
King of America was one of the finest albums released in 1986. When Costello ventured on his Spinning Wheel tour that year, he impressed. It wasn't just his tunes, but the covers that were on the wheel, such as Prince's "Little Red Corvette" and Bon Jovi's "Bad Medicine."
Costello admitted that the latter is one of his guilty pleasures. Good for him. Why should the king of cool be an elite rocker, who thumbs his nose at hitmakers?
Costello would also mix it up with other artists and deliver memorable duets, such as a terrific one with the the master of blue-eyed soul, Darryl Hall, of Hall and Oates fame. The tandem knocked "The Only Flame in Town" out of the park.
"You know that I love to perform with other people," Hall said. "I've performed with many on my show [Live at Darryl's House] but one of my all-time great thrills was working with [Costello]." Costello began a songwriting collaboration with Paul McCartney with the somewhat forgotten gem, Spike, released in 1989 sans the Attractions.
He penned "Veronica" with the Macca and it became one of his biggest hits. He also made like the aforementioned Hall and became a soulful singer with the gorgeous "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror."
It doesn't matter that there isn't a common thread, which links the songs through 1996's exceptional All This Useless Beauty. The reason is that nine of the 12 songs were written for other artists. Costello rendered his take on the tunes, as well as three other songs. The title track, "Complicated Shadows" and "Shallow Grave," which was written with McCartney, stand out. However, the opening cut, "The Other End (of the Telescope)" features an assist from Aimee Mann.
"It wasn't just great to be part of an Elvis Costello song," Mann said. "It was amazing to be part of such an incredible song. Elvis is just one of those enduring recording artists, who just doesn't make a bad record."
And then there is his latest album, Wise Up Ghosts and Other Songs, which is a collaboration with Philly's brilliant hip-hop act, the Roots. On paper, Costello and the Roots are light years apart in terms of age, demographic, styles and, well, more. However, the common denominator is that they both are musically adventurous and smart. The union is that good, but little has gone wrong since Costello reared his head as an angry young man during those post-punk years.
The good thing is that he shows no sign of slowing down.