An appreciative Honolulu audience filled Blaisdell Concert Hall to capacity for two weekend nights to revel in the splendid music of one Declan MacManus, aka Elvis Costello.
The generous, bespectacled host — with the able assistance of the Honolulu Symphony Pops and conductor Matt Catingub — offered up a strong case for the more recent, less familiar songs that have taken him into the third decade of a rich career.
One pleasant surprise (during a Friday-night performance filled with them) came when Costello offered up the two songs everyone in the hall wanted to hear: They had been transformed. The orchestral arrangements put a fresh palette of color over these ol' favorites from 1977, without at all sacrificing the originals' strengths.
"Watching the Detectives" was reimagined as a swinging 1950s television theme, and the Symphony Pops' rendition effectively captured all of its finger-snapping swagger.
And when Costello did "Alison," he showed that the original bite of that pointed tale of love lost has mellowed over time. With the addition of a sympathetic orchestral arrangement, the famous ending line — "my aim is true" — had more of a melancholic, wistful feel.
Costello and his original keyboard accompanist, Steve Nieve, have just begun a tour promoting Costello's latest release, My Flame Turns Blue, a live recording with the large Dutch jazz ensemble Metropole Orkest.
Songs from that album featured Friday included the title track (based on Billy Strayhorn's "Blood Count"), "Upon a Veil of Midnight Blue," the boldly black comic artsong "Speak Darkly, My Angel" and a fine reworking of Costello's 1981 "Almost Blue," which he dedicated to his absent wife, Diana Krall.
A couple of times Costello went "unplugged." First, he introduced a song just recorded with New Orleans piano/composer legend Allen Toussaint. Accompanied only by acoustic guitar, Costello made "The River in Reverse" a terse and bracing reminder of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
He and Nieve would later duet on the popular "Veronica," Costello's observant lyrics about fading memories, buoyed by the music of Paul McCartney.
Speaking of collaborations, three of his most captivating with Burt Bacharach — "Painted From Memory," "I Still Have That Other Girl" and the glorious "God Give Me Strength" — were all warmly received. Costello was in fine, strong voice all through the concert, and his singing on these ballads was particularly heartening.
The man obviously wanted his longtime fans to understand his current "serious" music. He introduced the concert with comments about a suite of pieces called Il Sogno (The Dream) that he composed for the Aterbaletto dance company for an adaptation of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Considering the short rehearsal time the Honolulu Symphony Pops had, the performance of the ambitious and eclectic score was laudable.
Costello looked satisfied, watching from the wings as Catingub took the suite through its many voicings.
Other unexpected pleasures included lovely renditions of "The Birds Will Still Be Singing" (from The Juliet Letters), "Still" (the underrated piano ballad from North) and the lushly orchestrated and rousing "She" (from the 1999 Notting Hill soundtrack).
Costello ended the evening by boldly striding to the front of the stage and singing off-mike his obscure "Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4." The audience hushed, the concert hall turned intimate as Costello sang his haunting lyrics of love-in-doubt. But he had the audience singing along with the rousing finale.
After all of love's struggles explored in Costello's lyrics, it was an optimistic end to a praiseworthy evening.