In terms of local venues, Elvis Costello has played through the rotation: Most recently he visited the Chicago Theatre, House of Blues and Park West. Other tours, such as the Fleadh Festival, brought him to the midway at Chicago Motor Speedway; Northwestern University's McGaw Hall, a basketball arena, and Poplar Creek, now a Sears parking lot. And who could forget his incredible "Spinning Songbook" shows at the Riviera?
But serving as a human lightning rod in the middle of a summer monsoon definitely upped the venue originality factor. Right before his Taste of Chicago show Sunday afternoon, claps of thunder, sounding exactly like the tommy-gun drum roll that kicks off "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," boomed overhead, and then the skies parted and drenched the thousands gathered at the Petrillo Music Shell. (Not exactly a "Tokyo Storm Warning," but hey, the Weather Service had issued a tornado alert for that afternoon.)
Somehow the deluge just added to the festive atmosphere. Chants of "Elvis, Elvis" went up. Heard in the crowd: "What we put up with for a free show!"
So after a 15-minute rain delay, Elvis and the Imposters, his backing band, stepped up to the plate with "I Hope You're Happy Now," perhaps a good-natured retort to any doubting Thomases in the crowd. As usual, "The Beloved Entertainer" a k a "Napoleon Dynamite" a k a Declan McManus got the last word.
At 47, the British rocker still displays the unbridled passion of his youth, as demonstrated on those calling cards first profferred so long ago, My Aim Is True (1977) and This Year's Model (1978). But maturity has moderated his lyrical and emotional attacks. (On the liner notes of recently issued expanded version of Armed Forces, Elvis even admits: "[Back then] I was not quite 24 and thought I knew it all.") Matching him measure for measure in intensity were longtime collaborators Steve Nieve on keyboards, Pete "Mr. Rock Steady" Thomas on drums and Davey Faragher on bass (replacing the exiled Bruce Thomas).
In their eclectic 90-minute set, they offered up just two songs from last year's When I Was Cruel, "Dust" and "Tear Off Your Own Head (It's a Doll Revolution)," and skipped through fan favorites such as "Every Day I Write the Book" (rarely done in concert), "Less Than Zero" and "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea." Plus they tossed in a few oddities such as Mose Allison's "Everybody's Cryin' Mercy" from Kojak Variety and "Clown Strike" from Brutal Youth.
But nothing from his upcoming North, due out in September, featuring the Brodsky Quartet (for those who couldn't get enough of The Juliet Letters) and a 34-piece orchestra (shades of Guy Lombardo?). Perhaps since they just started a North American tour, which included stops at the Montreal jazz, Ottawa blues and Calgary folk festivals, their arrangements seemed more improvisatory (and sometimes more languid) than usual. For instance, "Pump It Up" substituted Nieve's usual venomous synth attacks for a slower, slinkier groove.
Though it took a while for Costello and company to really kick out the jams, it's good to see that his engagement to Canadian jazz princess Diana Krall hasn't caused him to tramp the dirt down just yet. For the last song, the beloved "Alison," he conducted a mini-symphony on the theme of recrimination and betrayal, segueing into Smokey Robinson's "Tracks of My Tears" and "Tears of a Clown" and finally into the real Elvis' "Suspicious Minds."
Like his last concert here, at the Chicago Theatre in October, he saved his best for the encores. "Uncomplicated" percolated from a miasma of swirling keyboards and guitar into a churning, burning funk. "Radio Radio" seemingly tempted fate as the storm clouds rolled back in. And for the finale, he dedicated "Peace, Love and Understanding" to the beleaguered Dixie Chicks, while Nieve riffed on "Theme From a Summer Place" in counterpoint. Maybe not an Elvis show for the ages, but certainly a welcome afternoon respite.