Elvis Costello brought downhome charm and country-rock flavour to Massey Hall Friday night in support of his current T-Bone Burnett-produced disc Secret, Profane & Sugarcane.
Accompanied by six crack musicians who collaborated on the album, the multi-talented singer/songwriter delivered a rousing 75-minute set. Costello, sporting a dark grey suit and purple fedora, kicked off the 27-song concert with tunes picked from his entire 30-year recording history – "Blame it on Cain" from his 1977 debut My Aim is True, "Down Among the Wine and Spirits" and "My All Time Doll" from his latest – and covers like "Mystery Train" and Merle Haggard's "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down." Later, he debuted a couple of darkly intriguing tunes he said he had written that afternoon, and offered a stirring reworking of 1983's "Everyday I Write the Book."
As much as the novel folkiness of the organically arranged music the group presented – much in the vein of his 1986 album King of America – the crowd enjoyed the leader's banter. The native Brit who turned 55 on Tuesday, joked that sharing his birthdate with Ivan the Terrible, Sean Connery and Billy Ray Cyrus was "conclusive proof that astrology is bulls--t."
And noting his return to Massey Hall after five years, he recalled that bandleader dad Ross MacManus – "always the better singer" – told him to "never look up to a note, always look down to it." And no, he shrugged, he didn't know what that meant.
The host of the talk show Spectacle displayed great comedic timing and the ability to laugh at himself, recalling a time the BBC referred to him as an "aging punk rocker." In setting up "She Handed Me a Mirror," about Hans Christian Andersen's unrequited love for 19th century singer Jenny Lind, the husband of Diana Krall managed a shot at another Canadian diva. Explaining that Lind made her American debut before a large crowd without a microphone, he quipped "It was like a Celine Dion concert: you couldn't get far enough away."
He played mostly acoustic guitar in leading his band – Dennis Crouch on standup bass, Jeff Taylor (accordion) Jerry Douglas (dobro), Mike Compton (mandolin), Stuart Duncan (fiddle) and guitarist/vocalist Jim Lauderdale – but fired up the electric for a stand-out version of Velvet Underground's "Femme Fatale." A microphone change before the song rendered his vigorous voice much clearer for the rest of the set.
The audience was receptive, but sedate, cheering songs at the end, but never singing along or standing 'til the encores.