Elvis Costello's solo show at Carnegie Hall was seemingly designed to separate the casual fans from the ardent true believers. Accompanying himself on guitar and keyboard, the venerable rocker delivered a two-and-a-half hour set that, while it offered a few of his familiar hits, so extensively mined his prodigious catalog that the evening resembled an archaelogical dig.
Performing songs dating as far back as his 1977 debut album My Aim Is True to one written just a few weeks ago, he dazzlingly demonstrated the incredible stylistic breadth of his songwriting. It was simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting, with more than a few audience members departing before it was over.
Despite his early pronouncement that "the theme of the evening will be love and deceit," Costello wandered into wide-ranging territory throughout the lengthy evening, frequently introducing his numbers with anecdotes both heartfelt and jokey. He movingly paid tribute to his father and grandfather, both musicians themselves, with such songs as "Jimmie Standing In The Rain" (featuring a tenderly sung interpolation of the Depression-era standard "Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?") and "Last Boat Leaving," as well as his grandmother with his hit song "Veronica."
"You'll get to meet the whole family tonight," he joked.
His comments were frequently amusingly self-deprecating. He introduced "Poison Moon," an outtake from his debut album, by noting that it was the first song of his that he heard on the radio. "Scared the hell out of me… I thought I sounded like a cross between Frankie Valli and Tiny Tim." He announced, "I'm going to play a song now that I really hate…I wrote it in 10 minutes, and it was a hit" before launching into a starkly impassioned version of "Everyday I Write The Book" that belied his introduction.
He frequently infused his own songs with revelatory, ingeniously arranged covers, including the Beatles' "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away" on "New Amsterdam," Al Green's "Here I Am (Come And Take Me)" on "Shabby Doll," "I Say A Little Prayer" on "I Want You" and Neil Young's "Love In Mind" on "Town Cryer."
He showcased his virtuosity on guitar in arrangements that generally veered wildly from the original versions. Alternating between acoustic and electric instruments, he added swirling loops to "Watching The Detectives" and concluded "I Want You" with a lengthy, feedback-drenched solo.
More ruminative songs like "Shipbuilding" and the jazz ballad "Almost Blue" featured sterling keyboard playing, while "A Slow Drag With Josephine" included a lengthy whistling interlude. Demonstrating the venue's sterling acoustics, he frequently wandered away from the microphone to sing without amplification. The stripped-down versions served to accentuate the lyrical brilliance of his songwriting, even if his nasal vocals weren't always fully intelligible (his occasional launches into falsetto provided welcome diversions).
The newest song featured, "The Last Year Of My Youth," was hurriedly composed earlier this month when he was asked to be a last-minute replacement for an ailing Lana Del Rey on the Late Show With David Letterman. ("Heaven knows, when you think of Lana Del Rey, you think of me," he joked.) Featuring incisive lyrics about the vicissitudes of aging, it was sung here with an entirely different melody.
By the time the lengthy evening ended on a jubilant note with ("What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love and Understanding?" — even this ever-adventurous performer didn't stray too far from the familiar version for that one — the audience had been fully exposed to the depths of Costello's talents. Well, not completely, since he's promised that the set list will vary from show to show.