Northampton was so pumped to see Elvis Costello play solo at the Calvin Theatre this past Sunday night that half the crowd gave him a standing ovation just for walking onto the stage. He sauntered out from the wings in a sharp hat and pointed jovially to a lit-up “On Air” sign, one of three bits of prop signage, and the sold-out place went wild.
The light mood was short-lived as he launched into “Peace In Our Time,” a dark political song from one of his least-appreciated albums, and followed that with “Cinco Minutos Con Vos,” a song from his new collaboration with the Roots that's moody and many-hued on the album but was reduced to an unrelenting two-chord dirge at the Calvin.
Anyone disappointed about the night being billed as a “solo acoustic” show must have been elated when Costello stepped on distortion pedals left and right during the song and for much of the two-hour-plus, 27-tune show, often creating a swampy marsh of noise.
He segued right into a double-shot of late-'70s songs, “High Fidelity” and “Green Shirt,” the latter involving a looping pedal that allowed him to keep up a tense time bomb atmosphere that he could then explode with a violently loud strum. It was a crowd-pleasing move for sure — a guy in the crowd responded with a “Whoo!” so excited and loud that his voice cracked.
“It's all about peace tonight,” Costello said to the audience in an odd drawl as if doing a Dylan impression, but he wasn't kidding: the show's song selection was geared toward the political, The Important — and, unfortunately, the humorless. He's a songwriter capable of such diversity, but the focused show felt one-dimensional to this fan.
His chosen theme — peace and war, the violence done by governments and its citizens — created a set list that spotlighted many a deep cut (“Any King's Shilling” from Spike, “Bedlam” from The Delivery Man, “Sleep of the Just” from King of America) and included a handful of heavy songs from his 2010 album National Ransom,” though it also allowed for a rousing set-ending and audience-enlivening “Oliver's Army.”
Costello relied heavily on electronic teleprompters built to look like music stands. He's written so many songs with so many wordy and complex verses, it's probably unfair to expect him to remember them all without help, but it made for an oddly detached show for me, watching him watch a screen while he sang.
A new song, “(She Might Be a) Grenade,” was the night's low point, as Costello's left hand flitted around the frets desperately trying to find the right chords, his eyes trained on the teleprompter. It didn't help the song, which came off as unfocused and tuneless.
Costello can still push his voice into stunning overdrive, which he did throughout the night, impassioned and strong clear notes at the top of his range and phlegmy howls, too, on songs like “Kinder Murder” and the complex “Invasion Hit Parade,” which ended with him muttering repeatedly, “I refuse to be saved".
Halfway through the set, the gum-chewing Costello stomped on a button and a large red “request” sign blazed alight at his feet. An avalanche of shouted song titles tumbled over him from every direction.
“First of all,” he said, “I'm going to introduce tonight's special guest — me!” and he went over to stage left to slump relaxedly in a chair. He sang the much-yelled-from-the-rafters hit “Alison” in a languid, almost mumbly style. The requesters up in the balcony sighed audibly when Costello let the song's ending trail off gently.
“Man Out of Time” ended the short request portion and then it was back to non-hits like “The River In Reverse,” the title track of his 2006 record, a droning song full of fuzzed-out murky guitar that gave the audience a chance to do a cacophonous call-and-response with Costello on the line “Wake me up!”
For the first encore, he sat behind an electric piano and sang his beautiful ballad “Shipbuilding,” followed by more folky banter in a Dylan lilt. “Things are so bad, they're going to get better,” he said, staying at the piano for a passionate run through of the unreleased song “For More Tears.”
“And muffled drums will drag / as they're folding up the flag,” he sang soulfully, “zipping up the bag / for more tears.”
Costello allowed a tiny window for levity, reminding the crowd he'd said the night was all about peace. “Ah, to hell with that,” he said as he stomped on a switch that lit up the third prop, a “Detour” sign.
He introduced the next song saying it was about a dance craze that was big “when rock 'n' roll was all the rage in Northampton in 1922.” It was the playful “Slow Drag With Josephine,” a skiffle-flapper tune with old-school lyrical cleverness and a nimble whistling solo.
“Jimmie Standing in the Rain” ended with Costello moving away from the microphone as he tacked on the lyrics of “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” singing them a cappella out into the theater, resulting in the night's second standing ovation.
A second encore had Costello grabbing an honest-to-goodness electric guitar to blast into his 1977 favorite “Less Than Zero.” The audience didn't need any prodding to sing along on the fun, punky chorus, “Hey, ooh hey, hey, ooh hey.”
Then came a tension-filled new song, “Tripwire.” “I thought there was more to forgiveness / than all we conveniently forget / torn from the pages of history / repeated again and again and again / ‘you're either for or against us' / and that is how the hatred begins.”
One could feel the thematic segue coming and sure enough, Costello slid right into “(What's So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” the audience applauding more and more as it recognized the lyrics. Costello's ultra-distorted, tremolo-saturated guitar sounded like bombs bursting in air.