Vancouver — Back in 1977, Elvis Costello appeared with his band the Attractions on Saturday Night Live. The band started to play "Less Than Zero," a track from Costello's debut album, but stopped a few seconds in and kicked into "Radio Radio," a searing attack on the media in general and pop radio in particular. It was an unforgettable performance, but by Monday morning, people in the music industry were writing Costello's obituary. He had, after all, insulted every radio programmer in the United States and alienated the very medium that drives the American music industry. He might as well pack up and go home, career in tatters.
Nearly 22 years later, those tatters have added up to an impressive pile. Radio, of course, never did warm to Costello, although he has racked up a few minor hits over the years, almost never with his best songs. He has, however, remained a critical darling — not, as David Lee Roth once suggested, because he looks like most rock critics, but because he's a brilliant songwriter and regularly displays a breadth of musical knowledge and insight that puts most critics to shame. That same quality has made him an ideal partner for a wide range of musicians; the once-angry young man has turned into the congenial collaborator who works with everyone from Paul McCartney to The Brodsky Quartet, from Anne Sofie von Otter to Burt Bacharach.
There was hardly a trace of that angry young man in the grinning, waving figure who skipped onto the stage of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver Monday for the opening date of a North American tour. Costello, who once jokingly dubbed himself The Beloved Entertainer, has grown into the role. His two-hour show, which ended with four encores and featured accompaniment by keyboardist Steve Nieve, was a funny, engaging and finely paced evening of entertainment that combined old favourites, almost forgotten oddities and a healthy selection of tracks from Painted from Memory, his collaboration with Bacharach.
He kicked off the evening with a trio of old songs, plucked from the remarkable string of albums — My Aim is True, This Year's Model, Armed Forces and Get Happy — with which he launched his career. "Temptation," "Accidents Will Happen" and "Talking In the Dark" sounded a little less punchy than they do with the full weight of the Attractions behind them, but the combination of acoustic and semi-acoustic guitar and piano allows Costello's wordplay and sure melodic hand to shine through.
The stripped-down lineup also allowed Costello to play around with the songs. "Radio Sweetheart" ("The first song I recorded, back before you were born") segued into a sing-along version of Van Morrison's "Jackie Wilson Said." "God's Comic," a sly track from 1989's Spike, featured a fantasy interlude in which Costello arrives in Heaven to find God on a waterbed, angry about the state of popular music and musing about what might have happened to the other Elvis if he hadn't died. Costello answers the question, providing Presleyesque samples of Duran Duran's "Rio" and Blondie's "Heart of Glass" before offering the King's take on The Verve's "The Drugs Don't Work."
It was the songs from Painted from Memory, however, that showed this lineup to its best advantage. Nieve, whose keyboard work in the Attractions offers wry commentary on Costello's songs, played it straight on the Bacharach tunes, parking himself behind the grand piano and sticking to the master's arrangements. Costello, meanwhile, stretched his voice in ways that no one would have imagined 20 years ago. It's still not the sweetest or most expansive voice in the world, but Costello makes the most of it, displaying remarkable control as he rises from a whisper to a scream on songs such as "God Give Me Strength," "What's Her Name Today?" and "This House is Empty Now."
And if there was any doubt about the power of that voice, Costello dispelled it at the end of the evening. After being called back for encore after encore, after delivering hits such as "Everyday I Write the Book" and obscurities like "Inch By Inch," Costello held up an index finger, wondering if the crowd wanted one more song. When the cheers echoed back in the affirmative, Costello told the soundman to turn off the microphones. With Nieve playing unamplified piano, Costello stood on the edge of the stage and sang "Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4." It wasn't on any fan's list of must-hear songs, but the musical melodrama, originally included in 1991's Mighty Like a Rose, turned the 2,800-seat theatre into an old-fashioned music hall. Perhaps it wasn't as startling as that long-ago version of "Radio Radio," but in its own way, it was just as magical.