New Jersey Star-Ledger, November 6, 2013
Elvis Costello goes it alone
Elvis Costello angled his fedora so that most of his face was in shadow.
Seated at an electric piano, he positioned the brim like a man protecting his face from a downpour. In a reverie, his hands found the chords of "The Puppet Has Cut His Strings," an elegy for his father, Ross MacManus, a big band singer and trumpeter who died in 2011 at 84. As the dense, near-dissonant note clusters rang out, Costello’s eyes widened, like a sleeper roused to tough reality by the tolling of church bells.
A little less than two hours earlier, Costello introduced himself to the sold-out house at the Bergen Performing Arts Center in Englewood as his own special guest. He was kidding around: Monday’s concert was a solo show. (He’ll do two more in Morristown later this month.)
But he was also acknowledging that the concert he was about to play had as much to do with Declan MacManus, the melancholy 59-year-old behind the Elvis Costello mask, as it did with the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer with a deep catalog of catchy, wordy, acerbic songs. Alongside the Fenders and picked-up acoustic guitars, ghosts stood onstage.
Costello never mentioned his father’s death, but he brought Ross MacManus up often, and looked both proud and wistful as he did; he also spoke about his grandfather, another musician who sang on ocean liners, and his grandmother, who never forgave Al Jolson for turning to talking pictures.
In this context, "Veronica" a song that explores the seagoing memories of an old woman, took on peculiar poignancy. "Jimmie Standing in the Rain," a jazz-age poem about a singer turned vagrant by bad luck, played as a hard-eyed tribute to Costello’s ancestors. "Ghost Train," an early song, was rinsed of its venom, slowed down and presented as a meditation on his hometown of Birkenhead.
The singer will always be best known for his scorching break-up songs, many of which deal frankly with infidelity and male inadequacy, and his astringent political material hurled at conservative regimes worldwide. He did a few of these: the Lothario takedown "King Horse," the withering anti-fascist "Less Than Zero," and the obligatory (but always beautiful) "Alison."
But he has also turned his overstuffed vocabulary on other recurring topics: inheritance, history, exile and the relationship between America and Britain. Performance is the family business, and the pathos and perseverance of the show person is a running theme on recent albums. Monday’s show did not star Costello the Angry Man, or Costello the punk, or the genial TV host of Spectacle. It was, instead, introspective, illuminating and, in many places, touching.
Had Costello possessed the command that his fans are accustomed to, it may even have been revelatory. Unfortunately, he did not. Costello’s voice has always been something of a blunt instrument; on Monday, it was often raspy and difficult for him to control. It cracked where Costello didn’t want it to and drifted out of tune on delicate ballads such as "Our Little Angel" and "Deportee" that required precision to set sail. Yet, sometimes, he’d find his footing and demonstrate that he’s still one of pop’s premiere communicators: "Church Underground," a complicated story featuring at least one mid-song conversation between distinct characters, was delivered with the force and clarity of a sermon.
A solo tour is an intriguing and somewhat perverse choice for Costello in 2013. He’s just released Wise Up Ghost, a collaboration with the Roots, and, in particular, drummer and producer Questlove, a Costello obsessive. Superficially, the Englewood show, which drew from all over Costello’s catalog, seemed to have little in common with the project he ought to be supporting. But the shadow of Ross MacManus’ death, and mortality in general, hangs heavily over Ghost, and Questlove’s production encouraged Costello to look backward. The pair raided past albums — particularly the ornate mid-career sets Mighty Like a Rose and Spike — for verses and melodies to recontextualize, and stuck together familiar riffs, phrases and musical bric-a-brac from across the catalog. For a dedicated fan, the experience of hearing Wise Up Ghost is like returning home to a once-familiar house and finding the furniture rearranged.
Costello took the lessons — and the mood — of Ghost into his solo concert. New songs contained seeds of older ones; fan favorites broke out in the bellies of recent compositions. "Cinco Minutos Con Vos," a new story that hints of espionage, suddenly became "High Fidelity." "Tripwire," another Ghost song, concluded with a slowed-down, pained rendition of "(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding." "You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away" sprung from "New Amsterdam," a Liverpool reflection in 6/8 time.
Even the hits came with twists. Instead of encoring with "Radio Radio," Costello chose to perform "Radio Soul," its mid-’70s rough draft.
As it turns out, the poem that became the excoriating "Radio Radio" began as optimistic verse about the transformative possibilities of music. He’d quickly overwrite that as his music took a sharp turn toward the declamatory, but "Radio Soul" makes Costello’s debt to Bruce Springsteen apparent and offered another glimpse into the heart of a devastated romantic who often plays as a vengeful pugilist.
Old showbiz pros that they were, his dad and granddad might have been alarmed to see the mask fall, even for a moment. Then again, they would surely know the full measure of its weight.
Where: Mayo Performing Arts Center, 100 South St., Morristown
When: Nov. 26 and 27, 8 p.m.
How much: $69 to $129;
The Star-Ledger, November 6, 2013