Since he made new waves as rock's cranky boy wonder 20 years ago, Elvis Costello's personal and artistic career has known dozens of permutations. He's ranged from the bright upstart, a Buddy Holly look-alike with bagful of acerbic, well-crafted pop songs, to a crusty bitter curmudgeon. Somewhere in between he even did a brief stint as a long-haired hippie type.
Much of his chameleonlike behavior has been blamed on the tough time he's had living up to those early wonder years — that and dealing with the trappings of fame. Ironically, with the recent recording of All This Useless Beauty, a collection of songs he wrote over the past two decades for other artists, Costello seemed to have come to grips with the past by embracing it. That rejuvenation was certainly felt when he appeared at The Showbox in May.
The fresh, crisp, new and improved Elvis was buoyant, funny, clever, gracious and feisty. Even when he offered to kick in the head of an overbearing fan, he did it with a smile. His voice was a wonderment — rich, full, easily tackling complex melodies and making chilling leaps. He told funny stories as well. If there was an overall style to his performance — he was backed by pianist Steve Nieve — it might have been cabaret but without the cloying artifice. Throughout the two-hour-plus show, Costello seemed genuine in both his manner and movements.
But the most dramatic devices were the songs and the intensity he invested in them. Often lyrically long and not always commercial — as unfortunately his sales are currently reflecting — Costello still held his own with unfamiliar songs before a house that really wanted to hear "Accidents Will Happen" and "Allison" — which he wisely included. The best were the most personal, songs of growing up and discovering love ("Little Atoms"), of advancing age ("Poor Fractured Atlas") and the bitterness of romance ("It's Time," "The Other End (Of The Telescope)" and "You Bowed Down"), the latter category having always been Costello's strongest suit.
Coming back with his original band to Bumbershoot, it's expected that Costello will be including more of his older material. He pretty much promised that at the Showbox, and his lifelong fans would certainly be thrilled to relive those songs with all the original players. What's hoped for is that he'll return with the same sense of joy he brought to his solo show. When Costello & The Attractions played Seattle two years ago, Costello was obviously tired. The new album apparently rejuvenated him. If anything, Costello seemed to actually have embraced the show business ethic: He was truly entertaining and the audience loved it.
It's reported that when Costello appeared on the Tonight Show earlier this week, he was complaining about the poor sales of Beauty and suggesting this could be his last tour. It wouldn't be the first time he's said that.
Hopefully, though, that won't put a damper on this show. When Costello is on top of his game there's no better interpreter of his songs. And with the Attractions behind him, it could be one of Bumbershoot's best.
But it's up to Elvis, and he's not saying.