In this age of cookie-cutter concert tours, Elvis Costello is daring to be original.
Instead of repeating the same set night after night in generic basketball arenas across the country, Costello is visiting just six American cities for multi-night engagements featuring different shows each evening.
Sunday he kicked off the tour's Chicago installment with the first of three soldout shows at the tiny Riviera Nightclub. Backed with a group of Americans he calls the Confederates, Costello played a potent two-and-a-half-hour show that drew heavily from his recent King of America and Blood and Chocolate albums.
Monday's show is scheduled to revolve around the "Spectacular Spinning Songbook," a giant wheel containing 40 songs which will be spun to determine the evening's entertainment. Finally on Tuesday, Costello and his long-time band, the Attractions, will survey a selection of his best-known hits and material from his latest album, Blood and Chocolate. It has been hinted that unannounced special guests and other surprises could be in store.
This sort of tour entails obvious artistic risk and financial sacrifice (smaller shows mean a smaller gate, travelling with two bands means a higher overhead). But if Sunday's show was any indication, Costello has devised the perfect way to illustrate the issues with which he continues to wrestle.
Back in February when King of America was released, Costello announced he was re-assuming his given name of Declan McManus. "I was a fine idea at the time," he sang on that album's opening track. "Now I'm a brilliant mistake."
Now, scarcely nine months later, Costello has been reborn on a new album, entitled Blood and Chocolate and credited to "Elvis Costello and the Attractions."
Like a lot of his fans, I wasn't sure what to make of this identity crisis. If anything, it seemed indicative of the indecision that has plagued Costello since after his first successes as the New Wave's most literate angry young man in the late Seventies.
Thus, when confronted with two wildly dissimilar Costello albums in the same year, I was quick to embrace Blood and Chocolate's old-time Elvis bite.
But in preparing for Sunday's show, I spent a lot of time with King of America. To my surprise, I've grown quite fond of it's moody soul-searching. Hearing those songs live Sunday has only accelerated the romance.
Lead by legendary guitarist James Burton and bassist Jerry Scheff (who used to play with that other Elvis), the Confederates proved in many ways to be a better complement to Costello than the Attractions. Though excellent musicians, the Confederates have enough years under their belts to let Costello be the star. That's something the Attractions sometimes forgot.
Just as strong, though, were the several passages when Costello and guitar performed alone. He opened the show with four such numbers, two of which came from Blood and Chocolate and may well have been the evening's highlights.
The first, "Tokyo Storm Warning," he punctuated with witty stories of fish and chips and Japanese robots that emphasized the song's ironic sides and established Costello as a far warmer stage presence than he is usually regarded.
A song later, Costello strapped on an electric guitar for an aching rendition of "I Want You." Obviously heartfelt, his plaintive vocals washed over the edgy guitar riff in a way that transcended simple performance. Later in the night, Costello would explain to the audience that he was "in a sad mood because my wife Cait (O'Riordan of the Pogues) had to fly out of town today."
In the show's second hour, Costello again took the stage alone to field requests from the audience, including old favorites like "Alison" and covers such as the Psychedelic Furs' "Pretty in Pink."
None of this, of course, did much to clear up those nagging questions of who's the "real" Elvis Costello and where he's going. Nor probably will Monday or Tuesday's show.
But that's probably the point. Sure, the old Costello was lotsa fun, but when the screaming's over it's time to figure out what to do about what it is that irks you.
Costello doesn't claim to have any grand answers, but you can't bet he'll keep looking. And you can be just as sure that rock and roll will be the better for it.