Elvis Costello, who appeared in Value City Arena last night before headliner Bob Dylan, might have seemed oddly paired with the unstoppable icon of the 1960s. Then again, if Dylan is the most significant songwriter of his time, Costello is arguably the best of his own generation.
Like Dylan, Costello has followed the dictates of his songwriting muse, investigating the requirements of the song at hand, regardless of the relevance of its content. For Dylan, that meant addressing the topical issues of the early 1960s in the style of the folk music "broadsides" created by his hero Woody Guthrie decades before; for Costello, it entailed writing in the punk-rock style that was the most vital rock ‘n’ roll expression during the late 1970s.
It’s not hard to imagine that if Costello had worked during the early 1960s, his work would have mirrored Dylan’s. Conversely, Dylan might have been a punk-rock star if he was born about 20 years later.
But like Dylan, Costello has never remained in one place for very long, moving restlessly from style to style, generally ahead of the pack, though he has sometimes been placed in the driver’s seat.
For the older man, that happened first in the early 1960s when he was labeled a protest singer after writing tunes such as "Blowin’ In The Wind." None of those songs were heard last night, though Dylan has revisited them over the years, according to his whim. Interestingly, Costello picked up the slack with several pointed and deeply moving anti-war songs.
Instead, Dylan allowed the meat of his program to wax more philosophical. Observations of the human malaise that has led to conflicts such as the war in Iraq were addressed obliquely in songs such as "All Along The Watchtower" and "Ain’t Talkin’." Both were highlights of the evening, Dylan delivering their fantastical narratives with a gravelly mystery that was echoed by his five-piece backing band’s dense and churning accompaniment. "Ballad Of A Thin Man"’s odd but compelling scenario was cloaked in a deliciously dark arrangement.
But the newer, more ambiguous songs worked best last night. "Things Have Changed," Dylan’s Oscar-winning soundtrack tune from the film Wonder Boys, was unsettling.
Since the mid-1960s Dylan has revitalized his back catalogue, constantly reinventing ubiquitous songs that lesser artists would have shied from revisiting. But last night, the often a-melodic vocal shorthand the singer applied to tunes such as "Just Like Tom Thumb Blues" and "Rainy Day Women No. 12 & 35," was easily eclipsed by the stellar blues rock of Dylan’s crack band.
More interesting were the breadth of styles and emotional tone the singer covered with selections such as the kitschy, comical "Spirit On The Water," the enigmatic ode to "Everyman Workingman’s Blues #2" and the swing of "Summer Days."
Costello’s set was more pointed. The singer also was much more engaged with the audience. For all their similarities, Dylan and Costello have addressed the world oppositely in their work. Dylan’s constant avoidance of the press and the enigmatic nature of some of his best songs have defined him as a cultural outsider, while his art has offered an uncommon examination of humanity that continues in live performances such as last night’s.
Costello’s approach has been both direct, as in last night’s "From Sulfur To Sugar Cane" and the new song "Down Among The Wines And Spirits," and — sometimes painfully — entrenched in human emotion as with the effusive "Either Side Of The Same Town."
From the first, Costello displayed both a respect for and détente with material from his earliest, punk-rock days, performing smashing versions of "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" and "Radio Sweetheart" as well as a sweet Alison accompanied only by his sometimes-abrasive and over-amplified acoustic guitar.
He covered his pop period ably with "Veronica" and the political side with a rousing reading of "What’s So Funny About Peace Love And Understanding" and a devastating closer, "The Scarlet Tide." The song, co-authored with T-Bone Burnett for the Civil War film Cold Mountain, was an commentary on war in general and the current conflict in Iraq.
Amos Lee and his band opened with a short set of gospel- and blues-influenced rock.