It's not fair to other songwriters that, after nearly three decades of strong songwriting, Elvis Costello may only now be reaching his prime. Thursday at Jones Hall the former punk rocker put on a tuxedo and his umpteenth identity to prove once and for all that he has added classical arranger and big band vocalist to his repertoire and that he wants to be taken seriously.
With the Houston Symphony as his backing band (along with longtime collaborator and bandmate, pianist Steve Nieve), Costello unveiled a two-and-a-half show that included a 50-minute overview of his orchestral composition Il Sogno and a load of rare and well-loved songs from his rock 'n' roll career.
This was not a night of three-chord guitar loops. This was big-boy music arranging with flugelhorns, oboes, brass, strings and a giant gong.
Costello, 52, spent much of the last 12 years in his own personal music school learning how to write and arrange for a symphony. It is the type of creative discipline all other self-satisfied pop artists wouldn't bother with. That he was also able to completely reinvent guitar-based classics like "Alison" and "Watching the Detectives" in the process for this large ensemble made this performance epic.
Following the Il Sogno suite, Costello grabbed his guitar and warmed up his loyalists with a march through "The River In Reverse," the title song of his new album collaboration with New Orleans R&B legend Allen Toussaint that is scheduled for release this summer. For Costello adding new dimensions is often a domino effect.
After "The River In Reverse" he set aside his ever-present guitar and gave us a look at Elvis as a member of the Rat Pack. For the romantic "Upon a Veil of Midnight Blue" and the lush ballad "Still" he clutched and tilted his mike stand is if it were his dancing partner. On "Veronica" he again went for his guitar, but sang in a lower octave to give it new form.
Other songs such as "Almost Blue" and "My Flame Burns Blue" found Costello purring at the crowd and counting out the rhythm with head bobs as if possessed by Frank Sinatra. These songs were performed as if symphonic scoring was always an option for them.
Costello has clearly unlocked a creative door as he worked to bring his symphonic vision to the stage. After seeing and hearing these early results, I can't wait to hear more. At long last, Costello the arranger is getting respect from his own fans, the classical crowd and assorted local celebrity guests including Marvin Zindler and Jeff Bagwell.