Remember Elvis Costello? The intense guy who caught our attention five years ago with an arsenal of angry tunes and delivery to match? Over the course of eight (!) varied LPs Costello's music has grown and matured but his on-stage image as tormented neurotic has endured beyond its usefulness.
Like him though you may, Costello has invariably been stiff live. The demeanor reinforces his commanding presence while obscuring his humanity. Lately, though, he's been making a conscious effort to mitigate that severity, granting interviews (gasp) and acting more like a regular fella in concert.
Outdoors at Manhattan's Pier 84 in August, his efforts succeeded. Costello zipped through two exciting hours jammed with everything from dusty pearls like "Watching the Detectives" to highlights off Imperial Bedroom, and displayed an enthusiasm that was darn near charming. In addition to cheerful (if usually incomprehensible) remarks to the crowd between numbers, he got physically involved in the music, occasionally executing the halting dance steps of someone slowly coming out of his shell. During the extended encore, Costello really "got down," capping one song after another by wagging his index finger at the adoring audience and asking if they wanted one more tune. That's the sort of thing Johnny Winter used to do!
Costello played a startling number of cover versions, relying on other people's words and music to express things plainly in a way he hasn't yet mastered. His rendition of the Temptations' "Don't Look Back" was poignant; the O'Jays' cynical "Back Stabbers" was atypical in its non-Costellian directness.
If Elvis Costello weren't such an original talent, this "normalization" might be cause for alarm. There's no hint of diminished creativity, however, and his acknowledgment of mainstream conventions may even result in pleasures previously unimagined. When most performers bellow "Rock 'n' Roll!" at the end of a song, it's a tired cliche. When Costello did it at the Pier, it was a small, unexpected delight.