TORONTO - As he nears his 60th birthday in August, Elvis Costello’s aim remains true.
And then some.
After losing his voice three songs into his Ann Arbor, Mich., show on Friday night due to a cold and finally having to postpone after nine more tunes, the 59-year-old British singer-songwriter turned up much improved in Toronto on Saturday night at Massey Hall, also the day the celebrated venue turned 120 years old.
In fact, Costello - decked out in a gold fedora and purple pinstriped three piece suit with a simple backdrop of two signs that said On Air and Detour and a rainbow of lights behind him - proceeded to wow the crowd with a marathon solo show of three encores and thirty plus songs that stretched over two hours and 25 minutes.
If he was suffering healthwise, his dramatic and passionate vocal delivery that included whistling, expert acoustic and electric guitar playing (and occasionally piano on songs like Shipbuilding and Almost Blue) and animated storytelling between songs didn’t betray him.
In fact, Costello was taking the audience through his life and four decade career while happy to wear his influences like Paul McCartney (they co-wrote Veronica which he performed) and the recently deceased Jesse Winchester (Quiet About It and Payday, which he also covered) on his sleeve.
“I was eight years old when I joined the Beatles fan club, I never thought I’d write a song with Paul McCartney,” he explained.
He later covered The Beatles’ Hey, You’ve Got To hide Your Love Away, merging it with his own New Amsterdam.
And of Winchester, Costello said he wrote maybe the best lyric ever in rock and roll on Payday: “I got me this long-legged girl. To help me to spend my dough, A heart as big as your mama’s stove, And a body like Brigitte Bardot.”
Costello also generously paid tribute to those he had influenced, specifically Toronto singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith who was a surprise guest during the first encore joining him for Everyday I Write the Book.
Of Sexsmith, Costello said: “He taught me how to sing on my own during a tour of Japan.
Sexsmith sheepishy replied: “You’re sounding pretty tight tonight.”
Costello began at the beginning, kicking off the night with Welcome to the Working Week, Miracle Man, and No Dancing - a trio of songs in the order they appear on his acclaimed 1977 New Wave debut My Aim Is True. Later he moved onto deeper cuts from that album like Alison, Sneaky Feelings, Watching The Detectives, Mystery Dance and (The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes.
But the “occasional Canadian” - as the husband of jazz-pop Nanaimo, B.C., artist Diana Krall and father of their twin boys called himself - really made the show about his family starting with Veronica, which he wrote about his grandmother.
“People have called me angry but they never met my grandma,” he joked. “She could hold a grudge.”
Last Boat Leaving and Jimmie Standing in The Rain was about his grandfather, a musician who played on cruise ships crossing the Atlantic, while Ghost Train and Suit of lights were about his big bandleader father who was clearly on his mind the night before Father's Day.
Costello’s last album was 2013’s Wise Up Ghost, his fine collaboration with The Roots - now best known as Jimmy Fallon’s house band on The Tonight Show - but songs from that record were kept to a mininum with Cinco Minutos Con Vos and Come the Meantimes coming during the second encore.
Still, they were well-received and the audience happily joined in on the call and response of Come The Meantimes much to Costello’s delight.
The third encore saw him close out the night with My Three Sons, The Last Year of My Youth - which he recently wrote the night before he had to fill in last minute for Lana Del Rey on David Letterman (“Because when you think of Lana Del Rey you think of me,” he joked) - and finally fan favourite (What’s So Funny ‘bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.
In a recent British documentary, Mystery Dance, he apparently said that Wise Up Ghost was the last of his career and that he wanted to concentrate on bringing up his young sons with Krall and would perform only when he needed the money.
I’m really hoping this wasn’t Costello’s farewell in Toronto given how vibrant a live performer and songwriter he still is.