He sat behind a grand piano on the stage at Constitution Hall and joked with the audience, a man perfectly at ease, with a responsible haircut, a gray suit and a pair of bright red shoes. Elvis Costello, singer, songwriter... and now, of all things, entertainer.
Without the familiar Attractions behind him, Costello stood up remarkably well last Wednesday with only his voice and an acoustic guitar or piano. His songwriting talents have been no secret to the critics or to the "hip intelligentsia" (as the New York Times once described his limited but loyal following), and after he finishes his current solo concert tour, Elvis Costello should also have established himself as a first class performer.
Costello played three or four new songs and a few covers, but the balance of the show was his older material given a new interpretation. He opened the show with "Accidents Will Happen" on the acoustic guitar and played several of his other concert standards like "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes," "Green Shirt, "Kid About It" and "Every Day I Write the Book."
The best performances, however, were of his lesser known or rarely performed songs. His versions of "Man Called Uncle" and "Riot Act," both from his 1980 album Get Happy!, were masterful. He then sat down at the grand piano for what must certainly rank as one of Costello's most powerful live performances ever: "Just a Memory," a fairly unmemorable tune when it was released on the 20-song collection of B-sides and rarities Taking Liberties in 1981, was given new life with Costello's straightforward playing and his strong vocals.
Costello was called back for three encores, finishing the show with a touching version of "Allison." The crowd at Wednesday night's concert had a handful of receding hairlines and tweed jackets, but was mostly longtime Costello fans who came to Constitution Hall out of curiosity at this latest turn in Costello's unpredictable career. They couldn't have been disappointed.