Perhaps the best way to approach Elvis Costello’s solo performance Sunday night at the Maison Symphonique de Montréal is to get the puzzling bits out of the way first.
No, the performance wasn’t entirely off the cuff, as our recent interview with the man might have led one to believe. There was a set list circulating before the show, so the basic framework of the concert had clearly been planned.
But the list was evidently not written in stone. Costello, as one might have expected under the circumstances, went off script a few times. The baffling part is that he did it by dropping 11 songs. Missing in action were King Horse, Watch Your Step, Almost Blue, Jesse Winchester’s Quiet About It, a song listed as For More Tears (but which might have been Tears, Tears and More Tears), Man Out of Time, Suit of Lights, A Slow Drag with Josephine, For the Stars, Couldn’t Call It Unexpected No. 4 and I Want You.
The show that had stretched into the two-and-a-half-hour range in some cities landed at roughly an hour and a half here. And that was including a pause in the action where festival co-founder Andre Ménard presented Costello with the Spirit Award, honouring quality and musical innovation in popular artists.
The reason for the substantial song omissions is unknown at this point, but rest assured that it was not because Costello wasn’t feeling it. The show he did deliver – which, let’s be fair, was of a reasonable length – sounded as committed, intense and passionate as any he ever gave here.
Actually, make that more. Of everything.
Costello joked and reminisced, shouted and whispered his vocals, pounded and caressed his guitar and generally played to the back rows – including those seated behind the stage.
Opening with Jack of All Parades, with its bolero-ish, pulsating chord foundation and dashing right into an almost Kinks-ish version of 45, Costello leaped 16 years and served notice that we might be making stops all over the back catalogue – linked thematically, we were told, to the theme of life in exile.
The theme might have been love and deceit, Costello explained, “but then we only have 90 minutes. I have four days worth of songs for that,” he quipped.
The range of material spanned 39 years – from the 1975 song Poison Moon, which predates his first album, to the recently-written The Last Year of My Youth, an instant classic.
In the first of a few delightful stories, an affable and talkative Costello prefaced Poison Moon, a soft country-ish ballad, by recalling the feeling of hearing his demo material on the radio and turning off the kitchen light because he was embarrassed, watching the street light shining on the linoleum floor.
More than once, he returned to the subject of his father and grandfather, both musicians, sharing their stories and bringing their spirit into the room (the one about his dad going hippie and ordering him to grow his hair was warmly received.)
But the focus, inevitably, was the songs. This was a stripped-down celebration of one of rock’s most rewarding catalogues and an artist of almost limitless scope. With only Costello, his guitars and a keyboard on stage, this clearly wasn’t the occasion to bring in the Brodsky Quartet for a few tunes from The Juliet Letters, his brilliant 1993 collaboration with the string ensemble, but the evening was nonetheless a reminder of how rich Costello’s body of work, even without accompaniment, really is.
It is, as we have always known, all about the songs.
The tuneful 1980 gem New Amsterdam, for example, was faithfully strummed and easily blended with the Beatles’ You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away. Right after that came another lesser-known beauty, Ascension Day, from 2006.
The dynamics were mostly inspired. There was a sonic glitch as Costello’s guitar amplification breathed its last during a tenderly-picked Everyday I Write the Book, but the philosophical singer seemed to shrug it off and moved to the followup selection, The Comedians, which was all power, worthy of its definitive version by Roy Orbison.
Some opportunities for rediscovery were especially welcome, including a folky version of Beyond Belief, the oddball melody of Ghost Train and the dramatic Shipbuilding, played on electric piano.
Fans of the more well-worn material had to be delighted by the presence of Watching the Detectives, played loud and boosted with raunchy effects-pedal loops, the still-beautiful Alison and the ever-touching Nick Lowe-written anthem (What’s So Funny `Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?
The evening ended with Costello talking about his grandfather’s days playing on a cruise ship. He then revisited a recent recording, the haunting and overlooked Jimmie Standing In the Rain, from the 2010 disc National Ransom.
Costello, an underrated singer, delivered the final verse of the song off mic, drawing the audience into his world even farther. In the end, it was all quite perfect. And if he couldn’t do every song everyone might want to hear, well …. let’s just hope there’ll be another night like this.