Bypassing major markets in favour of college towns, Elvis Costello is approaching his current US solo tour in an admirably low-key (though undoubtedly lucrative) manner. He's crying poverty to explain his current bandlessness and, while it's a mite hard to imagine his new Warner Bros deal doesn't make some mention of tour support, the absence of the esteemed Attractions is hardly the catastrophe one might expect.
The solo Elvis blows holes in every unflattering old singer/songwriter cliche you could think of, and stands as further evidence that Costello's growth from Seething Young Man to Civilized Adult Artiste was a darned good idea. The one-man-show format brings out the best in both songs and artist, re-energizing numbers like "Temptation" and "Accidents Will Happen."
Over the past decade-plus, Costello has matured into a generous and compelling performer. Once the tersest of front-men, he's now comfortable bantering with the crowd, silencing hecklers (this was a college gig, after all) and the like. But the born-again jolliness regularly gave way to performances as impassioned and riveting as any he's ever given.
Indeed, Costello has become such a skillful and personable performer that his covers ("Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," Little Willie John's "Leave My Kitten Alone" and the other Elvis' "Marie's The Name," the last performed as an encore duet with Nick Lowe) never seem like affectations, conveying instead the singer's unaffected feel for multiple pop idioms.
Still, it was the songs from Spike that set the tone of haunted bemusement that carried most of the set. "Blue Chair," "This Town" and "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror" drew strength from the stripped-down setting, the well-placed vitriol of "Let Him Dangle" all the more persuasive in this stark context.
The final portion of the show cast Costello as a satanic gameshow host, calling on female audience members to request tunes and select updated Deadly Sins (eg "Awesomeness," "Architecture" and "Trump") from the heart-shaped pillow that served as the stage set's only memorable prop.
Costello's pal Nick Lowe checked in with a chummy ten-song solo set which demonstrated that Lowe's way with a tune — not to mention his distinctive smartass charm — hasn't diminished.
The two songs from Lowe's forthcoming Dave Edmunds-produced LP — particularly "I Want to Build A Jumbo Ark," for which Lowe accompanied himself solo on electric bass — offered ample evidence that Costello isn't the only old man who can teach the young farts a thing or two.