It's all about that singular voice.
Elvis Costello is unique. Sure, he's not the only acclaimed songwriter around who twists brand new melodies from well-worn chords. But he is the only one who renders chords, melodies and structure almost meaningless by a remarkable vocal that is inimitable and as distinctive as popular music gets.
He's made some popular music too, you know. It's easy to forget — hits like "Oliver's Army," "Alison" and "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding" are summational and sound as alive today as when they ruled the airwaves over 30 years ago. He played them all.
But it was the deep cuts that enthralled a sold-out Philharmonic Hall. "Either Side Of The Same Town" — from 2004's The Delivery Man — is a lesson in economy and release in its live guise, with Costello elongating vowels and spitting the country soul chorus wonderfully. Similarly, "45" and "When I Was Cruel No. 2" (the latter delivered from a rocking chair, with an acoustic parlour guitar and a multi-directional vintage mic) brought the house down thanks to a delivery that was dripping with intensity.
He's some singer. The style may not be to everybody's taste, but nobody does emotion better. Probably because Costello doesn't do anything… he just is. And you won't see a more comfortable performer on stage.
The stage for this Detour solo show is a little less cluttered than last time he was in town, when he brought the spinning songbook with him, but there are still props to add to the narrative. We get clips of his dad, Ross MacManus, singing with the Joe Loss Orchestra; a young Steven Gerrard blissfully looking into his future during the blue-tinged regret of "That's Not The Part Of Him You're Leaving" and a hollow television set for the beloved entertainer to step into during the encores — accompanied by support act Larkin Poe — including "Pump It Up," "Brilliant Mistake" and "A Good Year For The Roses."
There is a real sense of vaudeville to the evening, especially when Costello treats us to stories of his family's wandering past and plays the pre-rock and roll sound-a-likes of "Jimmie Standing In The Rain," "Who's The Meanest Gal In Town Josephine" and a cover of Cliff Edwards' enduring austerity ballad, "Side By Side."
It's another ballad that steals the show, however. Surprisingly, Costello moved over to a grand piano for a few tunes during the gig, and revealed himself to have a unique sound on said instrument too… especially when he played those stately, black and white opening notes that introduce "Shipbuilding." "Is it worth it," he sang and every drop of vibrato reverberated around the hushed hall.
"Diving for dear life, when we could be diving for pearls…" goes the chorus to the song of the night. And it sends us all out onto Hope Street thinking about that very question and wondering just how deep the well of Costello could be. The verdict? Just like "Shipbuilding," Elvis is one of a kind and I'm not sure there is a bottom to find. Outstanding.