The last time Elvis Costello performed in St. Louis, Ronald Reagan was in the White House, Whitey Herzog was managing the Cardinals, and the concept of New Wave rock 'n' roll was not yet completely out of date.
On Monday, Costello finally returned, rewarding his long-suffering St. Louis fans with a 2½-hour concert at the American Theatre that spotlighted 38 songs from all phases of the singer's lengthy, prolific career.
After a pair of opening numbers, Costello basked in an extended ovation from the crowd, which was clearly overjoyed to have him back. "You see what happens? You stay away for 15 years and everybody goes crazy," he said, joking that he continually missed the city due to an unfortunate crease in his road map.
With Costello mostly playing acoustic guitar and only former Attractions pianist Steve Nieve to back him up, the set could be described as "unplugged," but there was still plenty of electricity in the air as they pulled out old favorites such as "Man Out of Time," "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror," "Alison," and "Every Day I Write the Book."
Nieve's playing was percussive and full of neoclassical flourishes, but some songs, like "Pump It Up" and "Watching the Detectives" lacked the power and volume a full band could provide. Costello seized the opportunity to enunciate, though, making plain the many subtleties of his acid-dipped lyrics. The audience didn't seem to mind the trade-off and helped out by singing along on "God's Comic" and "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" and clapping the snare drum accents to "Green Shirt."
The piano and guitar format best served the material Costello wrote with legendary tunesmith Burt Bacharach for their 1998 album Painted From Memory. Taking on the persona of a sophisticated crooner, Costello sang "What's Her Name Today?" "God Give Me Strength" and "I Still Have That Other Girl," as well as a cover of the Bacharach-Hal David perennial "I'll Never Fall in Love Again."
Amid relative obscurities like "Little Triggers" and "Hotel Matches" and deft interpolations of lines from Van Morrison and the Beatles into his own songs, Costello spiked the set with some wonderful new works, including "You Lie Sweetly," about a couple that sleeps together but falls out on the morning after, and "45," a clever ode to Costello's age as well as the outmoded type of vinyl records.
Overall it was a terrific show that had the audience wanting more even after five encores. Here's hoping they get it before another year, let alone 15, passes by.