After more than 25 years of writing tunes, Elvis Costello boasts a songbook that rivals all but the most prolific composers of the rock era.
The 48-year-old singer/guitarist probed the obscure recesses of that repertoire at the Hummingbird Centre last night in a way that tested the recognition factor of even his most obsessive devotees.
Costello, who made his debut back in 1977 with My Aim Is True, gave every impression of being on a mission to validate the largely ignored and even maligned portion of his career that followed the 1986 release of King Of America.
While Costello was welcomed on to the stage with a generous ovation, no whistles or hollers of appreciation greeted the opening bars of his first offering, "Everybody's Crying Mercy," a Mose Allison song that appears on 1995's Kojak Variety. And the audience wasn't exactly humming merrily along with his next serving, "My Dark Life," an extra track from the 2-CD reissue of 1996's All This Restless Beauty.
After "In The Darkest Place" from Painted From Memory, Costello's brilliant but largely neglected 1998 collaboration with Burt Bacharach, he tossed out a bone in the form of "Clubland," which the audience hungrily seized. Then he reverted to form with "So Like Candy" and "Clown Strike," two more tunes penned during the '90s.
By this point the chorus of requests was growing audible and potentially disruptive. Costello ignored the shouts for "Alison," "Watching The Detectives" and other chestnuts, stopping during one of his few conversational interludes to say, "I forgot to mention, we don't do requests."
It was a bold move. And, thanks to the sure-handed accompaniment of keyboardist Steve Nieve, drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Davey Faragher, a brilliantly executed one as well. In almost every respect, this was a much better and more memorable concert than the one the same quartet delivered last summer at the Molson Amphitheatre, even if the set list on that occasion was probably more fan-friendly.
"Toledo," another track from the Bacharach album, is one of the finest songs Costello has written in the past decade. And each, clever phrase resonated with crystalline clarity.
"Indoor Fireworks," which launched the acoustic guitar segment of the program, was another shining moment, as was a hushed version of the Patsy Cline-imprinted "Sweet Dreams."
Perhaps influenced by his fiancée, Canadian jazz diva Diana Krall, Costello maintained a low-key, restrained approach throughout, even taking a little bit of the compressed air out of "Pump It Up," a rare re-acquaintance with his early career.
At one point, a frustrated fan shouted, "Rock out!" To no avail.
This wasn't a night for pandering to the audience. It was a night when the performer gradually succeeded in winning the audience over by showing off his less recognizable side.