Part of the fun of Elvis Costello is that you literally never know what he's going to do.
He has an astounding catalogue of original music it would take days to perform live. He could rock out. He could punk out. He once recorded an album of sinister parlour music with a string quartet. Maybe he'll do that. He worked with Burt Bacharach. Maybe show tunes are on the menu. Elvis can do country, too. He started his career in a country band, remember. Perhaps he'll pull out some sort of avant garde new wave David Byrneian pop noir music, whatever that is. Now he's going out with Diana Krall, so jazz is not outside the realm of possibility. Maybe she'll even show up. Elvis has got a new album called North due in the fall. God knows what it'll be.
In last night's case, people were willing to buy tickets when they didn't even know what kind of band Costello was going to have — the Attractions, the Imposters, solo, duo, it was a mystery — but only about 1,900 people. Elvis at the Jubilee Auditorium and it doesn't even sell out. What is the world coming to?
It turned out to be Elvis Costello and the Attraction — keyboardist Steve Nieve — and the performance was just as brilliant as fans hoped it would be. It was actually a little of all the styles mentioned above, delivered flawlessly, spontaneously, passionately, by the two musicians who could cover all styles and do whatever they wanted. Costello is an incomparable songwriter, a masterful performer and a darling of music critics everywhere for a reason.
Several reasons, actually:
Rock chops: The man has an angry side and expresses it well in angry rock 'n' roll. When he started in the late '70s, he fit right in with the British punk movement, or at least wasn't booted out. Last night, Elvis kicked on the distortion and started to growl in "45" — from the When I Was Cruel album. There was more energy being pumped off the stage than many bands I know, though it was only a duo.
Intelligence: Faced with covering one dumb rock band after another, music critics find Elvis's smart yet direct lyrics a breath of fresh air. They also all look like him.
The voice: Intelligent songs aren't enough on their own. Costello has a fine ear and is only off pitch when he wants to be, but he has this raw, powerful, desperate quality to his voice that contrasts beautifully with his elegant music. Last night, he came on full force in the opening song, "Rocking Horse Road." In "Accidents Will Happen," he backed up from the microphone and wailed to great effect. In a strange, grand, Kurt Weill-like song called "Shot With His Own Gun," with Nieve showing off his classical music chops, Costello's voice dropped to a cracked whisper. It was beauty and the beast.
Above all, emotion: This guy is still singing heartbreak tunes written decades ago like it happened yesterday. Costello was especially convincing last night in songs like "In The Darkest Place": "He won't love you like I do. In the darkest place I'm lost, I have abandoned every hope. Maybe you'll understand I must shut out the light." Geez, poor guy. Either Elvis is a great actor or has a really screwed up love life. We wish him the best with Diana Krall. Stay tuned for smoky jazz duets.