When Elvis Costello made his Minneapolis debut as rock's angry young man in 1977 at the funky punk-rock club known as the Longhorn, who would have imagined that 30 years later he would be performing at the other side of downtown with the Minnesota Orchestra at Orchestra Hall?
Costello, 53, and his music may have matured over the years, but he hasn't lost his acid tongue. When introducing Il Sogno, his orchestral interpretation of A Midsummer's Night Dream composed for an Italian ballet company, on Friday at Orchestra Hall, he dedicated the piece to "any woman who has fallen in love with an ass."
Good ol' Elvis. Despite the stuffed-shirt setting, Costello — wearing a bolo tie and a dark suit — has never been more relaxed in concert in the Twin Cities.
He was playful between and during songs — arching an eyebrow, gesturing with his hands and mugging to dramatic orchestral passages. And, most important, his vocals were consistently passionate. He is a very emotional singer, and was effective in many different styles and approaches on Friday.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer started the program by introducing Il Sogno and then leaving the stage to let the Minnesota Orchestra, conducted by tuxedo-clad Alan Broadbent, play four pieces from his 2000 composition. The music was light and airy, almost mischievously playful in parts. It was probably more effective accompanying the ballet than as an orchestral piece.
Then Costello returned to play selections from throughout his career, with the orchestra accompanying him on all but one or two pieces. Some of the orchestrations worked better than others.
"God Give Me Strength," one of his Grammy-winning collaborations with popmeister Burt Bacharach, arrived orchestra-ready, thanks to its richly melodic piano line and Bacharach's celebrated sense of orchestral pop. Charles Aznavour's unabashedly romantic "She," which Costello recorded for the 1999 movie Notting Hill, was similarly a natural for orchestration.
His dark, jazzy treatment of "The Girl in the Other Room" made it more satisfying than the original recorded by Diana Krall, Costello's wife. His own reworked hits also proved rewarding. "Watching the Detectives," which Costello played at the Longhorn back in 1977, had a nifty orchestral swing to it, reminiscent of 1950s TV soundtracks to detective shows. "Shipbuilding" was redesigned seamlessly for orchestra, with a terrific jazz noir vibe.
The audience, clearly more Costello fans than orchestra regulars, whistled and cheered loudly after every performance — extra loud for acoustic-guitar-driven favorites like "Veronica" and "Bedlam," done with just Costello on acoustic guitar and longtime pianist Steve Nieve on siren effects, was a powerful bluesy crowd-pleaser.
Even a few of the orchestra members, wearing black shirts and sweaters but no ties and dresses, let their hair down a few times and seemed to be enjoying playing with a true rock star — especially when he sang without a microphone on the encore, a 19th-century number, during which he waltzed into the audience to lead a "doo-doo" sing-along. No stuffed shirt, indeed.