Elvis Costello built his reputation as a song-writer, one of the most vital to emerge from late-70’s New Wave and punk. His compelling performance at the House of Blues Monday underscored that he’s as much a showman as he is a songwriter.
Dressed in a black suit and leather shoes and accompanied only by Steve Nieve, the keyboardist from his backing band, the Attractions, Costello offered up a generous career overview, from his earliest albums to his recent collaboration with veteran popmeister Burt Bacharach. The show ran to nearly 2½ hours; given his rapturous reception in the sold-out room, he could have played all night.
His voice never faltered as he rasped as the anguished romantic or crooned like a Tony Bennett styled balladeer. He wielded acoustic and electric guitars with the style and grace of a matador with a cape. Such was his intensity that he seemed to have difficulty occupying his hands when they weren’t strumming a guitar; he generally kept his left hand thrust in his pocket, and clasped his right to the microphone stand.
Costello’s writing can sometimes be a bit cluttered, and his show bogged down briefly during a long stretch of such material. But soon enough he was back on track. The spartan retooling of "Watching the Detectives" was a revelation. Costello sliced off concise, dirty chords on an electric as Nieve karate-chopped the upper register piano keys, before finally slamming the piano shut. The longing of "Alison" and "Veronica" burned through. The audience matched his intensity by shouting back the chorus of the rousing "Pump It Up."
That Costello is still passionate about material written 20 years ago made his set especially immediate. After four encores, he finally asked for and received quiet so that he could sing directly to the audience, without the microphone. He briefly pantomimed trombone and sax parts for levity, but mostly laid himself bare in a direct, naked communication with his listeners. It was an intimate finale to a very special performance.