A few minutes after New Orleans started celebrating its first Super Bowl win, a saint of another sort came strolling on to the stage at Winspear Centre. Not only is Elvis Costello one of rock ‘n' roll's revered misfits, Sunday's gig was dedicated to raising money for the Fort Edmonton Foundation and its efforts to preserve the city's past.
OK, so he didn't play for free – but he did take time to mingle with 200 VIP ticket-holders at a post-show reception, signing copies of vinyl records and posing for photographs. "I don't know what to say," said one man as he shook his hero's hand. "I don't know what to say either," the musician laughed, then waited for the flash of yet another camera to temporarily blind his bespectacled eyes.
On stage, Costello wasn't at a loss for words – regaling about 1,200 fans with tales of his previous appearances in Edmonton, his latest lyrical inspirations, and his father's advice: "Never ever look up to a note, always look down." As much as he likes to poke fun at his own vocal talents – his father "is the real singer in the family" – Costello's pipes were nothing short of sublime, powerful and dexterous during his solo set.
"Either Side of the Same Town," a quiet, sullen number, showcased his falsetto and a round of passionate oohs to rival Bono's trademark intonations. A slower rendition of his snappy pop hit, "Everyday I Write The Book" — "Ron Sexsmith taught me how to sing this song" — featured his warmer, forlorn octaves. "Brilliant Mistake" offered flashes of his gulpier, brattier cadences, while "Sulphur To Sugarcane," one of the tunes from his latest Grammy-nominated effort, Secret, Profane and Sugarcane, boasted his very brief attempt at impersonating a barbershop quartet. "Bands are very expensive now," he explained.
Not that he needed one. For 90 minutes, Costello and his five guitars quickly and deftly navigated his repertoire, only relying on vocal assistance from the crowd on "Radio Sweetheart" and "God's Comic." In keeping with the beneficiary of Sunday's show, his set was an intimate and largely acoustic affair, with hints of musical genres and characters of yore. (He only picked up his electric guitar for an extra-rumbly rendition of "Watching The Detectives.")
As he gets older, Costello seems to write tunes that look back – not so much in anger, but with a sense of playfulness absent from his earlier lovelorn ditties.
He saved some of these newer "older" tunes for his five-song encore — including "Sulphur to Sugarcane," a country-ish knee-slapper with silly lyrics about the women in Ypsilanti who don't wear any panties, and a just-written song about savouring other people's miseries. "It's the feel-good hit of the summer," he smiled.
Soon after lifting his hat to the crowd for the final time, Costello re-appeared in the Winspear's backstage studio, filled with wide-eyed VIPs sipping wine and nibbling on shrimp and quesadilla triangles. Clad in a black fedora and sporting a red scarf, he was immediately surrounded by fans and organizers of the show. "Elvis, thank you for coming to our northern city," said Sue Currie, president of the Fort Edmonton Foundation.
The fundraiser was likely not as successful as hoped — ticket prices were slashed in the days leading up to Costello's show — but fans such as Andrea Emsley and her husband, Jeff, were more than content. "I was shaking," she said after meeting the musician. "I told him, ‘Thank you for tonight and the last 25 years.'"