There is an awesome dissonance to Elvis Costello's genius: He's got that voice, as recognizable as David Bowie's or Van Morrison's (if you think about it, it pretty much sounds like a marriage of the two) that has hardly changed after more than 40 years of belting. But then you've got his actual music — 32 studio albums worth, kicking off with radio-friendly punk before spiraling into soul, country, folk, electronica, jazz and classical. Hell, he made an album with The Roots this year. The word "chameleon" is often used to describe Costello, and rightly so, yet he's the same guy, with the same voice, the same glasses, the trademark suits and fedoras.
If there is any venue in Ithaca where time can, for a little over two hours, at least, slow down and where the man himself can open up, it is our very own State Theatre, where Costello played a solo set Thursday night courtesy of Dan Smalls Presents. Turns out Elvis Costello is not only a virtuosic performer but also a gracious, funny guy eager to look back on his roots, music history and the popular enigma he has erected in his name.
A jumbo-sized "On Air" sign idled by stage right before the show began. There was little other ornamentation up there, save for an intimidating number of guitars (I counted five). My eyes wandered over the State Theatre's walls, ceilings and lamps, soaking in their history. Not long after a beaming Costello, sans opener, took the stage at 8 p.m. and the "On Air" sign lit up, he made sure to applaud his surroundings. "I'm making an effort to play all the old vaudeville theaters," he said humbly, reminiscing about when he first visited America and made sure to see all the monuments: "The St. Louis Arch, the Empire State Building … and Ithaca."
"Rock and roll was invented here in Ithaca, you know," he quipped later in the night, "concocted in a science lab here in Cornell, before anyone wanted it." A genuine appreciation for our town and his audience buoyed any dry sarcasm, which could explain why this sold-out crowd greeted every song with some of the loudest, most passionate ovations I have ever heard.
He earned it. From the first song, My Aim Is True's "Welcome to the Working Week," Costello radiated excitement. On "King Horse," he toyed with pedal reverb and stuck all the requisite high notes and then some. His voice held strong to the end, although he called on audience participation now and then. At times, the call-and-response echoed the scatting of Cab Calloway — as during his performance of "American Without Tears," where he approached something like delirium with complicated doo-wop and trills.
When covering The Beatles' "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," he egged everyone on to really shout the "Hey!" that precedes the eponymous chorus — he seemed so happy to perform a song he has clearly loved since childhood. Just to balance the mood, perhaps, he got the crowd to reiterate, "Now I'm dead … I was scared," a bunch of times in "God's Comic." This call-and-response got louder and louder and, by song's end, felt more cathartic than macabre.
If the back-and-forth is any indication, Costello hosted an atypically intimate night of music and chatting about music. "This is a socio-political survey," he announced early on, "about the last [50 to 70 years] of history and my place in it." A proven legend like Elvis Costello can spout as many self-aggrandizing boasts as he wants, as far I'm concerned, yet this quote turned out to be a wordy precursor to a selfless and sentimental examination of his family and influences. In between a Nat King Cole cover, "Walkin' My Baby Back Home," and "Ghost Train," he joked about his late father, a musician who "looked like a hippie" or Peter Sellers from What's New Pussycat? (think Velma from Scooby Doo). His dad once booked him a gig as a backup guitarist before he even knew how to play. Costello improvised, going crazy on air guitar to the befuddlement of his older audience.
He actually learned how to play guitar, of course, and, in those Born to Run days, he wanted nothing more than to be Bruce Springsteen. This idealism produced "Radio Soul," a highlight of the evening and a much more romantic precursor to the scathing hit "Radio, Radio." This reflection granted Costello an opportunity to weigh in on the power of music, which he believes mixes internal emotions with the drama of melody and dynamics to create something uniquely empathetic. Given the evidence, I don't think he could find one naysayer for miles around.
When his narrative arrived at his grandfather, Costello worked the audience like a seasoned comic, with speculation about how his ancestor was too "finely dressed" for a trumpet player: he must have been a smuggler, too. This levity segued into talk of the Great Depression and "Jimmie Standing in the Rain," the strongest and most heartrending song of the night. The ache of his voice as he sang that borrowed last line, "I'm your pal / Brother, can you spare me a dime?" away from his microphone lingered in the air before being swept up by exuberant cheers from every soul in attendance.
A similar vibe informed "Alison," which he sang with little movement and his hat tilted down. He hushed his guitar to let his melismatic vocals take over. In such a charged, nostalgic atmosphere, that oft-repeated line, "I'm not gonna get too sentimental…" revealed its true colors.
By the second encore (that's right, second), Costello took requests with a loud, red, light-up "Requests" sign. A tender rendition of "Tripwire" on electric guitar morphed into a wild "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," which ended in a carnal loop of guitar feedback. Costello met multiple standing ovations with a bow and quick retreat back to the guitar or, by the end, keyboard, holding a finger up in the hair to indicate "Just one more." He actually followed up with two more, ending on the somber ballad "The Puppet Has Cut His Strings," which worked more to reaffirm the pathos of the second-act songs than the comic, pub-like feel of the first act.
We got close to the man, we laughed with him, we exchanged compliments. By the end, that internal artistry reclaimed its hold, bringing the mood down while keeping our spirits high. Elvis Costello shared something special with us Thursday, something complete. But he, like every true genius, left the stage a puzzle unsolved.