Three albums and two years after his last American tour. Elvis Costello returned to New York for three nights in late January and early February. One approached the concert with a large measure of curiosity, for Costello is nothing if not an enigmatic performer. The quality of his recorded material is astonishingly consistent given the quantity of songs the man has written — Costello has probably composed more great songs than any performer of the last five years — yet the person behind the public face has never been made visible.
Costello has been as zealous in his pursuit of privacy as he has been prolific in his songwriting. Thus he has come to exist in our minds as a voice from a recording studio, the author of some of the more indelible songs of our time. One does not think of the difference live performances might make to a Costello song in the same way one looks forward to, say, the on-stage interpretation of Bruce Springsteen's songs. The few times Costello has appeared before American audiences, he has performed well, stirred up some controversy off-stage (with his now-infamous comments that precipitated a bar brawl with Bonnie Bramlett in Ohio), but seldom altered the persona he had developed on vinyl.
Well, Costello is still safely ensconced behind his persona, but if his commitment and absolute dedication to live performances was ever in question, it has been settled beyond a shadow of a doubt. Quite simply, Costello gave one of the great performances in recent memory.
Costello played 26 songs in 75 minutes at his Sunday night (1) show, songs that spanned the period from his first album to his newest, Trust. He has matured greatly as a performer; he has grown confident enough to alter several of his best songs so radically that they became new. The original rhythms of songs like "King Horse" and "New Amsterdam" were changed so that the identities of the songs did not become clear until the chorus. The new readings of these songs also highlighted the virtuosity of keyboardist Steve Nieve, who interspersed a relentless rhythmic dive with highly imaginative improvisations, sometimes calling to mind Garth Hudson's flights of fancy with The Band.
Most impressive, though, was Costello's singing. The occasionally tentative performer of past tours has become a possessing and confident one: Costello is a majestic lion on stage. He performed ballads such as "Secondary Modern" and "Clowntime Is Over" with a soulfulness to match the Four Tops' Levi Stubbs, gesturing with conviction to the ubiquitous "you" his songs are invariably addressed to.
The fast songs — "Big Tears," "Hand in Hand," "High Fidelity" and "What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding" among them — gained an intensity in this performance that bordered on manic (these songs are fast on record, but faster live). Guitarist Martin Belmont of The Rumour joined Costello and the Attractions midway through the set to add additional power.
Costello encored with "From a Whisper to a Scream" and was joined by Glenn Tilbrook, vocalist from Squeeze (which opened the show with a dandy hour-long set) in a rousing performance. The second encore was a lengthened version of "Watching the Detectives" featuring a verse of Stevie Wonder's "Master Blaster" in the middle — an inspired finish to an inspiring evening.