KINGSTON, N.Y. — Elvis Costello sure doesn't make it easy for himself. He writes impossibly twisted and complicated melodies that plunge and swoop and go to unexpected places. He writes impossibly complicated lyrics to match — crowded with multisyllabic words that have to pour out of the singer's mouth like honey lest they crash into one another. He jumps styles like hopscotch — country, jazz, rockabilly, classic pop, Beatlesque pop, swing, Latin, big-band, operetta, folk, music hall, blues, reggae, soul, folk, Irish, New Orleans — blending them in unprecedented ways.
When it works — when it all falls together mellifluously, as it did on numbers like "All This Useless Beauty" and "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror" on Thursday night at the Ulster Performing Arts Center (UPAC) — it's a thrill to behold, a moment of transcendence, really. And there were several of those moments, as Costello took his audience singlehandedly through a walk through his considerable body of work, touching on greatest hits such as "Watching the Detectives" and "Alison" through deep catalog material for hardcore fans, with even a few old Tin Pan Alley tunes, including a few phrases from "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime," vocalized gloriously off mic into the old theater.
Although he has a terrific new album out which he recorded with funk group the Roots, this was a solo show, mostly acoustic, featuring songs from throughout Costello's 40 year career. Highlights of the performance included a version of "Radio, Radio," sung with the original lyrics, in an arrangement that more overtly nodded to its twin inspirations: Bruce Springsteen and Van Morrison. Costello lovingly introduced his hit song "Veronica" — which he co-wrote with Paul McCartney — as a tribute to his grandmother that also would have made mincemeat of a lesser vocalist, and was a gracious entertainer, peppering his tunes with stories from his life, especially about his family — he comes from several generations of entertainers, and it's really the family business that he's all about.
He joked about wanting to open the show in Kingston with "Trenchtown Rock" — a tribute to another musical hero, Bob Marley — until he realized it was the other Kingston he was in. He offered a selection of film-noir-influenced numbers — including, obviously, "Watching the Detectives," which saw him playing some pretty slick guitar loops heavy on the reverb — and then veered off into his "religious" work, in what he described overall as a "gospel show."
He worked hard — playing for over two hours straight — and the audience kept him onstage for two lengthy encores. Elvis Costello may never have become a huge star — he topped out as a theater performer, although he did do a few summer-shed co-bills (I recall seeing him at SPAC) — but there are few if any as talented and as highly respected for both their art and craft by both fans and fellow musicians.
And yes, he still seems pretty angry.