Elvis Costello didn't take an easy or predictable route Wednesday at a sold-out Copernicus Center. Seemingly on a mission to connect the common threads of popular music styles from the past century, the singer/guitarist performed a marathon 145-minute show touching on every facet of his adventurous career. Focusing on deep-catalog material, Costello displayed his unwavering commitment to excavating the memories, meanings and mysteries held in song — a pursuit he implied in "45," an ode to the significance of vinyl singles.
To Costello, making his first Chicago-area solo appearance since 1999, ambition and eclecticism have become second nature. Save for heavy metal, he's embraced every major genre. Costello's latest album, a collaboration with hip-hop veterans the Roots, continues a tradition of creative reinvention dating back 35 years. What hasn't changed is his consistency or ability to engage via witty observations, pliable vocals and detailed narratives.
Adorned in a plum-colored suit and pea-green fedora, Costello remained reserved but opened up about family history. He framed the predominantly acoustic set with personal tales, lending context to multiple songs. The Tin Pan Alley shuffle "Jimmie Standing in the Rain" and melancholic ballad "Last Boat Leaving" referenced his grandfather, a former ship musician, while "Veronica" paid tribute to his grandmother. He even cleverly addressed his famous "angry young man" identity through the lens of old-world relatives, which he declared hotter-tempered.
Yet the person foremost on Costello's mind was his late father. Mentioning the trumpeter/singer on several occasions, the 59-year-old recalled apprenticing with his dad's bands in Northern England before rhyming through the cabaret-themed "Ghost Train," an obscure B-side from 1980. The patriarch's influence — and death — extended to Costello's recurring interest in the passage of time. A cover of Richard Thompson's bleak "The End of the Rainbow" and "The Last Year of My Youth," a song Costello wrote just a week ago, tackled such issues with unflinching honesty. He played it twice, with the initial acoustic rendition registering as submissive and the electric more resilient.
Indeed, even when confronting threatening social and political tension ("Come the Meantimes," "Shipbuilding") Costello rarely sounded defeated. Refusing to obtain satisfaction from mundane nostalgia like many contemporaries, he discovered bold protest in machine-gunned rhythms ("King Horse"), innocent romance in whistled melodies (the 1930s jazz ditty "Walkin' My Baby Back Home") and renewed faith in surprise celebrations ("Radio Soul," an unreleased early version of his hit "Radio Radio"). In reflecting a dedication to tracing and reshaping music's ongoing lines of communication, Costello found truth in them all.