"I'd like to introduce my special guest for this evening," Elvis Costello said to the audience at the Merriam Theater Sunday night. "It's me."
Indeed, there was not another soul to be found on the Merriam stage, although Costello was kept company by a semicircle of guitars, a keyboard and a few light-up signs: At stage right, one reading "On Air" that played into a bit of stage banter about the show being broadcast in the Faroe Islands, a "Request" sign repurposed from the Spinning Songbook tour, and a one-way sign reading "Detour" that was meant to signal a departure from the evening's announced theme: "Love, and the flip side of that record: deceit and shame."
In truth, the evening's departures were many, if not from Costello's pet subjects, which he once more pithily summed up as "revenge and guilt," then at least from his usual onstage repertoire. Opening with "Jack of All Parades," a rarely performed number from his 1986 high-water mark King of America, Costello proceeded to such relative obscurities as "Mouth Almighty" (1983's Punch the Clock), "Mr. Feathers" (2008's Momofuku), and "Home Truth," from 1984's Goodbye Cruel World, which Costello has labeled the worst album of his career.
The stripped-down format can be a great way to reclaim songs once buried in dated production — see Neil Young's Unplugged renditions of songs from his synth-heavy Trans — but in spite of highlights like the melancholy "Rocking Horse Road" and a wistful "After the Fall," the concert's first half lagged as Costello unveiled one midtempo acoustic guitar number after another. The songs needed more varied accompaniment, either from a band or a more inventive guitar player to distinguish one from the next.
But when Costello plugged in, setting up a gnarly electric-guitar loop for "Watching the Detectives," the concert got a much-needed shot of adrenaline that carried all the way through the end of the second encore. "I Want You" found Costello raging against a hail of distorted noise, and even the acoustic "A Slow Drag With Josephine" and "Jimmie Standing in the Rain" were pushed forward by some brisk plucking of strings. The embryonic version of "Radio Radio" he's revived for this tour (known as "Radio Soul" on the set list) was more of a curiosity than a revelation, but the vintage B-side "The Flirting Kind" — which, according to Costello's obsessive, detailed Wiki, he'd never performed on stage before — definitely earned its singular moment in the sun.
Perhaps Costello didn't have company, but he's changed gears often enough in his career that it felt like there were many of him on stage, some more welcome than others.