When Elvis Costello returned to the Twin Cities in 1994, it had been 10 years since he'd performed here. That show, at Northrop Auditorium, was highlighted by a mind-blowing inventory of Costello & the Attractions' hits, but there was precious little interaction between performer and audience to make the evening truly remarkable.
What a difference two years makes. Sunday night at the Orpheum, Costello, along with the Attractions (keyboardist Steve Nieve, bassist Bruce Thomas, drummer Pete Thomas) returned to town to deliver Elvis' most memorable area concert to date — and yes, that includes the legendary Valentine's Day gig at the Longhorn Bar in downtown Minneapolis in 1978.
Unlike those previous performances (and 1984's Goodbye Cruel World concert), Costello this time around seemed exceptionally loose, warm, thoughtful, funny and wholly committed to communicating with the audience.
After a frantic, opening one-two punch of "Man Out of Time" and "You Belong to Me," Costello cast out "Clown Strike," which featured some extremely expressive guitar work that set the playing-without-a-net tone for the rest of the evening.
Not long after, Elvis sent the band offstage and performed a solo acoustic set (with occasional backing by Nieve) that included "Love Field," "Shallow Grave," "Veronica" and "Party Girl," which, he cryptically explained, "was written here. If you read the title in a magazine someplace, chances are good it's surrounded by lies." (Astute concertgoers recognized the remark to be a reference to an item a few years ago that appeared in Mpls./St. Paul magazine, which romantically linked Costello to local singer/songwriter/activist Leslie Ball.)
But the highlight of the acoustic set, and perhaps the entire evening, was "God's Comic," which found Costello uncorking a hilarious, spontaneous patter that gently dissed Andrew Lloyd Webber and Madonna, and creating a scenario in which the Holy Trinity sits around talking about rock: "And God said, 'You know this Alanis Morissette? And this Dave Grohl from the Goo-Foo-Foo-Goo Lighters? Aren't they the same person? It's just an evil plot by Warner Bros. to sell one record for the price of two.'"
Costello's stage raps and guitar dexterity weren't the only aspects of the show that felt fresh. He spent much of the set making eye contact with fans in the front rows, pantomiming and exaggerating his lyrics. And even though he claimed that this tour has left him hoarse, he belted "13 Steps," "All This Useless Beauty" (particularly spellbinding), "Beyond Belief," "Accidents Will Happen," "Watching the Detectives," "Alison" and a sprawling finale of "Rocking Horse Road."
For pure visceral satisfaction, it was hard to beat the medley of "Pump It Up" and "Slow Down," which prompted Costello to invite a young audience member onstage for a dance and a hug: So much for his reputation as rock's angry young Brainiac.
Opening the show was Canadian songwriter Ron Sexsmith, whose dense and melodic story-songs proved to be the perfect appetizer for Costello's performance. Highlights included "Secret Heart" from Sexsmith's wonderful self-titled debut album, released last year on Interscope Records, and a faithful reading of Costello's "Everyday I Write the Book."