It was an evening of lesser known songs and surprises, performed in the intimacy of a family parlor.
The very nature of Elvis Costello's solo tour — which reached Ann Arbor's Hill Auditorium Sunday night — was a bit disarming, considering Costello's full-band productions have been expanded and played larger venues during the past couple years.
But the switch seemed to have a mellowing effect on the singer-songwriter's unpredictable temperament. Dressed in a leather jacket, print shirt and black slacks, Costello was polite, if restrained, during the 90-minute show, obviously enjoying the opportunity to perform alone with just electric and acoustic guitars and — another surprise — piano, which he admitted after the show, "I make no pretense at being able to play."
The tour, he said, is being done because "it was there," but Costello admitted he had the itch since it's been eight years since he last played solo.
Fitting with the offbeat format, Costello offered a selection of songs seldom performed live, spurring delighted ovations from a sellout crowd not expecting to hear "Motel Matches," "Shot With His Own Gun," "Mouth Almighty," "Riot Act," "Green Shirt," "Girls Talk," "Almost Blue" or his tribute to country singer George Jones, "Stranger in the House."
Costello also reworked a few favorites like "Accidents Will Happen," "Alison," "Everyday I Write the Book" and "Angels Want to Wear My Red Shoes," and he also showcased several cover versions, including the soul chestnut "The Bells" and works by lesser-known British composers like June Tabor.
The singer debuted three biting numbers from his new album, due out by early June, including "Inch by Inch," the anti-Reagan "Peace in Our Time" and "Worthless Thing," a lament over the unused potential of modern technology.
He broke the somber mood, however, by staging an encore with opening act T-Bone Burnett. The impromptu duo posed as the Coward Brothers, reeling off a clap-along country tune you'd expect to hear at any small gathering of friends.