Since moving to Toronto three years ago, I've had the pleasure of seeing Elvis Costello play live four times — and each time he's come on stage as a completely different man. Touring behind his 2002 album, When I Was Cruel, Costello was a curmudgeonly rocker; a year later at the Hummingbird Centre he was toned-down, smooth and stylish; later that same week at Ottawa's Blues Festival he was playful and populist; and this last show, set in Toronto's splendid Massey Hall, showcased yet another side of the musician.
Touring behind North, his widely panned piano album, Costello is on the road with his long-time collaborator, keyboardist Steve Nieve, without a rock band. Now, the thought of Costello touring without a rhythm section, crooning love songs about new wife Diana Krall set many Costello fans on orange alert. Luckily, while Costello did restrict himself to what he called "the quietest songs I've ever written," this show was neither pretentious nor dull. Chalk it up to the man being in love — it was the warmest I've seen Costello yet.
Rather than coming off as a blown-up crooner, Costello struck the pose of a dapper singer-songwriter, humbly presenting himself and his songs to an adoring audience. He and Nieve adopted several configurations throughout the nearly three-hour long set: Nieve on piano with Costello on acoustic guitar, Nieve on piano with Costello on electric guitar, Costello alone on piano, Costello alone on ukulele... but, surprisingly, the best set-up had Nieve on piano with Costello instrument-free at the mic. While the guitar hero approached this unlikely position with gusto, making dramatic hand gestures and passionate facial expressions, not once did he come off as a schmaltzy torch singer. While just about any other rock singer would have looked like a fool trying to pull off these songs, Costello was completely natural and believable throughout the entire show.
Although North is a far better album than most critics would have you believe, on record Costello's newest batch of songs don't reach the same emotional level as much of his rich back catalogue. But, when performed live, with the songwriter standing openly in front of the piano, many of them — particularly the bittersweet numbers like "You Left Me In The Dark" and "When It Sings" — came to life marvelously. In addition to Nieve's skill at the keys, it helps that Costello's voice is in terrific form — at several points, he even stepped away from the microphone to take advantage of Massey Hall's acoustics, a move so intimate it brought much of the audience to tears.
Not everything was so dark and intense. Costello ripped through stripped-down versions of many of his classics, like "(What's So Funny About) Peace Love And Understanding," "Veronica," "Watching The Detectives" and a lackluster and unnecessary version of "Pump It Up." He was also uncharacteristically chatty throughout the show, giving an extended and politically juicy monologue in the middle of "God's Comic" (from 1989's Spike). He brought out a ukulele to do his Oscar nominated "Scarlet Tide" (from Cold Mountain), asking the audience to hold their cheers, saying "You don't have to applaud. We didn't win... fucking Hobbits!"
But after three hours and four encores (during which he played a set of brand new songs, including some thematically linked ballads), it was the intensely emotional moments — in both the North songs and old heartbreakers like "Shipbuilding" and "Almost Blue" — that left a lasting impression. "Sometimes people come up to me and say, 'Hey, Elvis! I love your albums. Especially the early, angrier ones,'" Costello quipped. While records like My Aim Is True and This Year's Model will go down in history for many as Costello's essential albums, he should also be recognized as what he has been for the past two and a half decades — an uncommonly versatile artist capable of much more than one single trick.