As host of the Sundance Channel's Spectacle, Elvis Costello gets fellow artists to open up about their creative process, and often perform stripped-down versions of beloved songs. The British singer/guitarist followed his television show's cue Monday during a wide-ranging solo concert at the Chicago Theatre, giving a sold-out crowd a rare glimpse into the intricate workings and bare essentials of his own material.
Never short on ideas, Costello has adopted nearly every imaginable musical guise throughout his 33-year career. Many of these flirtations surfaced during a 140-minute, 29-song set dependent on little more than voice, guitar and periodic loops. Keeping banter to a minimum, Costello embraced myriad roles — clowning minstrel, sincere balladeer, backwater bluesman, street busker, blue-eyed crooner, boxcar-hopping folkie, Dixie-whistling vaudevillian. No matter the style, his timbre seemed immune to age. Occasionally Costello walked away from the microphone, his voice still ably projecting, and capable of emphasizing dramatic impact.
Theatrics also informed the tunesmith's stage presence, albeit in annoying fashion. Clamoring for applause, Costello ended multiple songs with outstretched arms and bemused expressions. During encores, the showman acted as if he was preparing to exit, basking in adulation before picking up another instrument. But Costello deserved the ovations. Primarily playing acoustic guitar and using effects pedals sparingly, he exposed a sophisticated architecture of bridges, hooks and melodies rooted in country, jazz and pop. Straightforward renditions of favorites such as "Veronica" and "Beyond Belief" satisfied. But a succession of deep cuts, minor rearrangements and savvy segues mesmerized.
Costello turned "I Hope You're Happy Now" into a severe ballad, exchanging sneering anger for mellow contempt and reacting to romantic loss with an indignant shrug rather than a shaking fist. Graced with falsetto flights, "Either Side of the Same Town" came on as a lost Muscle Shoals soul track, laden with anguish and regret. Two holiday-themed numbers, "St. Stephen's Day Murders" and interpretation of Alan Hull's "Winter Song," oozed Costello's trademark black humor and piercing cynicism.
The storytelling mirrored his astute narrative foresight. Costello advanced lyrical dialogues by introducing snippets of songs by the likes of the Beatles or The Impressions at pivotal moments, the transitions revealing urgent meanings in a conversation that, for this literate virtuoso, is always changing.