Elvis doing Elvis doing Duran Duran.
The-very-much-alive Elvis Costello used the impersonation to illustrate his broadside at today's "popular entertainment," which also included a well-cheered for swipe at stepdancer Michael Flatley.
Costello's point was this. Lamenting The King's early passing neglects the almost certain reality that he'd be crooning cringe-inducing covers of Duran Duran's "Rio" or Blondie's "Heart Of Glass" had he stuck around.
But then departed Elvis didn't write his own words. Certainly nothing approaching Costello's much celebrated catalogue of songs with their clever, often acerbic and poetic lyrics.
Last night at Massey Hall, Costello put the emphasis on those words with minimal musical backing — just himself on guitar and Steve Nieve on piano — in an elegant two-hour presentation to an enthusiastic, sell-out crowd.
In doing so Costello, who is 44, showed how to avoid the middle-aged rocker's folly of endless repetition and self-mockery.
In front of a spare backdrop and with the lights kept low, Costello and Nieve, the longtime pianist of The Attractions, rolled out chestnuts that included "Alison," "Watching The Detectives" and "Accidents Will Happen." A few of the songs were barely tweaked save for a slimmed-down sonic setting.
Others, such as "Everyday I Write The Book," were radically re-worked. On that tune, Costello explained how he was taught its new arrangement by "one of Toronto's finest," singer/songwriter Ron Sexsmith. (Sexsmith recently opened for Costello, a huge fan, in Europe.)
Another glorious reworking came during "Radio Sweetheart," which Costello introduced as the first song he ever wrote. He joked that he had always imagined himself playing the tune on the Massey Hall stage with three women in sequined dresses singing behind him. "These three girls never turned up," he said, grinning.
With no new album to sell, Costello, wearing a black suit and his trademark black-rim glasses, was also eager to play songs from Painted From Memory, his 1997 Grammy-winning collaboration with Burt Bacharach. He launched into a three-song strike of the Bacharach material playing it straight. On several occasions he backed away from the microphone and out of the spotlight, leaving his voice to hang in the air.
But the night was about words, many of them from Costello's pen dealing with betrayal. While too many aging rockers (come on down Mick Jagger) deliver the emotion of their earlier work with practised professionalism, Costello still sings with a fiery passion that suggests all-to recent heartache.
Costello was also game for caustic asides and between-song banter.
For good reason the audience, filled with long-term fans, loved every minute.