NEW YORK -- Elvis Costello's Monday night show at Town Hall took place on the eve of the release of his new
album, North. Yet it would be hard to imagine an event that ranked lower on the fanfare scale.
Throughout the show, he was backed only by his longtime keyboardist, Steve Nieve, and he didn't even
play his guitar on the North material. Nieve left the stage at one point, and Costello presented solo
piano-and-vocal versions of three songs. For the final number, "Couldn't Call It Unexpected, No. 4," Costello sang with no amplification.
There were no visual gimmicks, and Costello even joked, during "God's Comic," that the show didn't have a high enough budget for someone to kill the lights, for theatrical effect, when he sang the line, "turn out the light."
Costello managed to dazzle in the unflashy setting, though, warmly crooning 10 songs from North -- his first full-length cabaret-style album -- and performing scaled-down versions of tunes from throughout his career.
He rocked at times, muscularly strumming a distorted acoustic guitar on songs like "45," "Tart" and "(What's So Funny'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?" There was just as much tension and release in "Rocking Horse Road" and "Radio Silence" as there would have been with a full band. But most of the numbers were in a more calm, thoughtful mode.
North is a soul-searching song cycle about losing love, then finding it again. While it does display some of Costello's trademark cleverness, it also contains some of his most plainspoken lyrics.
"I wasn't very conversational, except to say that you're sensational," he sang, with disarming enthusiasm, in "Let Me Tell You About Her," a song that painted this 48-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Famer as a lovestruck schoolboy: "Friends now regard me with indulgent smiles / But when I start to speak they run for miles." Whether Costello or the more virtuosic Nieve was playing piano for North songs, they stuck to a simple, uncluttered style that never distracted from the lyrics.
In addition to the 10 album tracks, Costello performed the song "North," which was left off the album, but is currently available for free downloading on his Web site, elviscostello.com. Presumably, it didn't make the album because its whimsical flavor would have been out of place, but in concert, it supplied some necessary comic relief. It's a quirky song of praise for the healing powers of Canada. "The polar bears and moose and geese will play / And some of them address you en français / Give me the ice and snow / Time to go north," sang Costello.
Other surprises in the show included the country standard, "I Still Miss Someone," and "Either Side of the Same Town," which Costello co-wrote for Rediscovered, the recent comeback album by soul singer Howard Tate. Songs from old Costello albums included everything from the Dylanesque anthem "Man Out of Time" to elegant ballads like "Almost Blue" and "Shipbuilding."
"In the Darkest Place," a gorgeous song from Painted From Memory (Costello's 1998 collection of collaborations with Burt Bacharach), proved perfectly suited for the unplugged treatment. And show-opener "Accidents Will Happen," which dates back to Costello's punk/new wave phase of the late'70s, supplied an ideal first line for this down-to-earth, conversationally toned evening: "I just don't know where to begin."
Costello's show tonight at Town Hall is sold out.
Tomorrow at 10 p.m., he will perform at John Jay College in New York. This concert will not be open to the general public, but will be broadcast live on the A&E cable television network, with an encore presentation Sunday at 10 a.m.