When he was 15 years old and still known to his friends and parents, if not to the world, as Declan McManus, Elivis Costello gave his first public performance. It was open-mike night at an English folk club and the young McManus made his way through his song — "something about winter, in E minor," he recalled wryly in an interview Thursday — with his eyes shut tight to ward off stage fright. When he opened his them again at the end of the song, he saw the evening's main attraction, English folk legend Ewan MacColl, sitting in the front row. McColl was fast asleep.
Costello, who will be 40 later this month, returned to the folk stage Thursday night at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival, playing an hour-long set outdoors in front of a near-capacity crowd at Gallagher Park in the river valley. This time nobody was napping.
Costello, accompanying himself on acousitic guitar, turned in a spirited and delightfully unpredictable set that included early hits such as "Alison" and "Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes," songs he'd written for performers such as June Tabor ("Useless Beauty") and Johnny Cash ("Complicated Shadows") as well as oddities such as "The St. Steven's Day Murders," a blackly comic Christmas song co-written with Paddy Moloney of the Chieftans.
While some might have been disappointed that Costello made his first appearance in 17 years without his usual backing band, the Attrractions, the solo set offered some real advantages. Costello's sharply turned lyrics came across more clearly than they would have with a full band, and the solo spot allowed him fingertip control over the pace and tempo of the show. He took full advantage, livening up the set with a series of quick changes, adding a few verses of John Lennon's "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" to the end of his own "New Amsterdam," dropping a verse from the Monkees' "Last Train to Clarksville" into "God's Comic" and capping off the remarkable set by sliding from his first single, "Radio Sweetheart," into a sing-along version of Van Morrison's sprightly "Jackie Wilson Says."
If Costello's set erased any doubts about the wisdom of inviting pop performers to an ostensibly "folk" celebration, the rest of the evening showed the diversity of talent that festival artistic director Terry Wickham has assembled for this year's event......