"You can go home, you’ve seen all the hits," Elvis Costello joked before he struck a single note of his sold-out solo show at the Pageant on Monday. Well, not so fast.
The veteran performer dug deep into his catalog, performing more than 30 songs in roughly two and a half hours. Costello accompanied himself on guitar or piano and told stories about some of the songs as well as his family’s musical history.
Throughout his nearly 40-year career, Costello’s material has been cloaked in various guises, from splenetic new wave to country to sophisticated pop, R&B, classical and many genres in-between. Given that one test of a song’s quality is how well it plays unadorned by additional accompaniment or production, Costello’s works continually pass with flying colors, especially due to the dense, deft wordplay of his lyrics.
Those lyrics were a lot easier to suss out without a backing band’s thunder, yet Costello’s performance didn’t lack for dynamics. He also had a nod-and-a-wink-style gimmick — a stage set featuring a giant mock TV, dubbed Lupe-O-Tone, which displayed various song lyrics as well as vintage images of Costello and his family, plus musical friends and heroes (including, at one point, Chuck Berry).
Early on, Costello mused about how he put the show together thematically. "I thought tonight maybe I would just sing about love and fidelity," he said. "But then I thought it would be a pretty short show."
He opened with a fan favorite, "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes," then veered into a honky-tonkin’ obscurity, "Cheap Reward," followed by an impassioned reading of "Watch Your Step."
Costello told the story of a Mexican misadventure with a female cab driver he fancied until she turned on the radio — "She wanted to listen to Rush…or maybe it was Journey. It was so hard to tell," he quipped. He wound up at the hotel — alone — and wrote "Accidents Will Happen."
Costello switched to piano for a mini-set that included a gorgeous, wrenching "Shipbuilding," a playful "Let Me Tell You About Her," and a rousing "I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down" with Costello occasionally rising to his feet — not to disprove the lyric, but to accentuate his falsetto cries.
Back on guitar, he dedicated "Shake Yourself Loose" to St. Louis native T Bone Burnett, his friend and occasional producer. "This is his town," Costello said.
He played the standard "Walkin’ My Baby Back Home" for his wife, singer Diana Krall, who is on tour elsewhere, and his 8-year-old twin boys, whom he imagined home alone "playing cards and drinking brandy." He introduced "Ghost Train" with a story about his father, whose band played on the same Royal Command Performance show as the Beatles, when John Lennon told the rich and royal to "rattle your jewelry."
Costello ended the set proper with a jagged-edged "Watching the Detectives" and a soaring "Man Out of Time."
For two of the three encores, Costello was joined by Atlanta roots-rock duo Larkin Poe — sisters Megan and Rebecca Lovell — who had opened the show. They sang a handful of songs from The New Basement Tapes project in which Costello and others finished scraps of songs left behind by Bob Dylan. "I wrote this song with (Dylan)," Costello said, introducing "Hidee Hidee Ho." "He doesn’t know anything about it." They also played the St. Louis-centric "Diamond Ring" and Costello's own "Indoor Fireworks" and "Brilliant Mistake."
Costello returned alone, this time standing inside the Lupe-O-Tone box for his classic "Alison," plus a quirky Dinah Washington cover, "TV Is the Thing (This Year)" and a rocking "Pump It Up."
Joined again by Larkin Poe, he sent the audience home with a raucous "(What’s So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" and a hushed New Basement Tapes tune, "Lost on the River."
Costello is scheduled to return to St. Louis this summer, playing with the Imposters as the opening act for Steely Dan at Hollywood Casino Amphitheater. That show has much to recommend it, but seeing the man and his music alone — well, OK, with a little help from his friends — was a terrific treat.