NORTHAMPTON – Thirty-five years ago, a brash and angry Elvis Costello played a short, explosive set just down the road at the University of Massachusetts Student Union Ballroom. That abbreviated 40-minute show left some fans exhilarated and others confused.
Fast forward to Sunday night and a very different Elvis Costello showed up. Friendly and a crowd-pleaser, Costello enthralled the standing-room only crowd at the Calvin Theatre with a two-hour (including encores) set that visited numerous facets of the singer-songwriter's storied career, including many tunes not often performed live.
While seeing Costello with a full backing band is a must-see experience, his solo shows like the one at the Calvin Sunday provide just as entertaining of an evening, albeit in a different light. In a a way, the stark setting of hearing the songs with just guitar and voice showcased the intricacy and nuance that Costello puts into his writing.
Take "Kinder Murder" for example. Although the full-band version provides listeners with a gut-punch sound, Sunday night's solo rendition was just as visceral but didn't rely on a backbeat.
The same was true of "New Lace Sleeves," which didn't have the recorded version's syncopated beat by drummer Pete Thomas, but brought the listener inside the song with a slowed-down, insinuating tone. The songs also allowed Costello to showcase his crooning ability.
Of course, slower songs like "Strip Search" and "Invasion Hit Parade" worked perfectly in an acoustic setting. These tunes also allowed Costello to stretch his voice out a bit.
Opening with the mournful "Peace in Our Time" immediately followed by dissonantly angry "Cinco Minutos Con Vos" (Five Minutes with You") which morphed into "High Fidelity."
It took Costello a few minutes to warm up vocally–nothing really strained, just a slight lack of usual power. But but by the fourth song, "Green Shirt," his voice was in fine form. "Coal Train Robberies" then brought his vocals into full force.
Costello didn't play a lot of his hits, but dug deeper, bringing out lesser-known tunes like "Bullets for the New-Born King," from his National Ransom album in 2010. This song was played somewhat ironically after Costello announced that the show was "all about peace."
Similarly, "Which Side Are You On?" was a song of a mining conflict by Florence Reece that was popularized by Pete Seeger.
Costello kept mining deeper cuts, playing "The River in Reverse," from his 2005 collaboration of the same name with Allen Toussaint. The only song that didn't work well was "Bedlam" whose funky rhythm didn't translate well to the acoustic setting.
After a somewhat dark-themed first hour, Costello lightened the mood by asking for requests. The audience responded with a deafening cacophony. Costello then ventured into his first hit, "Alison," to the delight of the crowd. He followed this with the powerful "Man Out of Time" from 1982's Imperial Bedroom.
But Costello revisited more obscure songs in the second half as well, pulling out "Any King's Shilling" from 1989's Spike.
The regular part of the show ended with "Oliver's Army," before Costello returned to perform two encores which included a gorgeous version of "Shipbuilding" (on piano), the poignant "For More Tears,""Less Than Zero," and a medley of "Tripwire" with "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?"