When Elvis Costello first came into the view of American music fans in late 1977, his "angry young man" image and slashing cynicism toward the music press fit hand-in-glove with fashionable punk stance. At the same time, his melodic sensibilities — along with his sympathy toward the protagonists in his songs — carried the best of his work oceans away from that narrow scene.
Elvis Costello's glaring strengths have always been his uncanny ability to write surprisingly sensitive lyrics, and fuse them with memorable melodies and a blustering delivery.
Unafraid — even eager — to risk his commercial appeal for the sake of maintaining his intense musical vision, Costello dares to record a country album (Almost Blue), or hire the 92-piece Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to embellish a concert (Jan. 7, 1982, Royal Albert Hall).
Costello kept faith by embarking on his latest tour without his backing ensemble, The Attractions, to perform solo. He accompanied himself on the guitar and piano as he had done on his first date, opening for The Rumour at The Nashville Club in London seven years ago.
His Ann Arbor date proved his unlikely decision a success. Hill Auditorium's acoustics are perfect for a solo performer.
Indeed, the rich subtleties, exquisite range and masterful control which was so apparent in Costello's voice would have been lost in a larger, more reverberant hall. When the singer breathlessly intoned "I'm giving you a longer look" on "Every Day I Write The Book," it was as though he were whispering secrets directly in the audience's ear.
The mood of the concert was decidedly casual from the moment Costello strolled onstage, unannounced, to perform a low-key version of "Accidents Will Happen," immediately followed by his tribute to country singer George Jones, "Stranger In The House."
The audience sat silent and entranced, leaning forward to capture every lyrical twist and vocal texture. This was especially apparent during the dramatic pianissimo passages of "Shot With His Own Gun" on which Costello's impressive piano accompaniment served as the perfect under pinning for his vocal dynamics.
The audience was delighted by the more obscure songs from Costello's repertoire: "Motel Matches," "Riot Act" and "Mouth Almighty." He also augmented his set list with a handful of cover tunes, ranging from the vintage Sam & Dave number "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down" to the Charlie Rich weeper, "I'll Make It All Up To You."
In addition, the singer/ songwriter introduced five new songs from an upcoming album: the melancholy "Only Flame In Town," "Home Truth," a lament over the directionless uses of technology called "Worthless Thing," the bluesy "Inch By Inch," and the song which climaxed the last in a series of three encores, "Peace In Our Time," a riveting commentary on political aggression.
Backstage after the performance, Costello admitted his uncertainty about this daring solo tour. "The first couple of dates I was scared to death," he confessed. But, he says, if all of the remaining dates on the tour are received as fanatically as the Hill Auditorium show, there may even be an acoustic segment on his next tour with The Attractions. "If it goes over real well," Costello remarked, "if we get the requests to do it, I may do an acoustic set."
"I think that you have to trust that an audience is being honest," said Costello. "Because I know that I am."