Elvis Costello is an extraordinary songwriter and performer. He's worked diligently at his craft for the past 40 years to attain a special place in the music world, listening to songs from many years ago to the latest hits. He's stayed relevant. Now, in his latest adventure, aptly called "Detour," Costello takes his audience on a musical journey through his vast songbook that's not only intimate and entertaining, but also humbling and inspiring.
On March 30, at the Nob Hill Masonic in San Francisco, in just the second night of his current solo "Detour" tour — and in what was my 11th Costello adventure — I saw a show like no other he's given, and I've seen Elvis perform with his various backing bands, including the Attractions, the Imposters, and the Sugarcanes; in a duet show with his longtime keyboardist Steve Nieve; accompanied by the extraordinary New Orleans pianist Allen Toussaint backed with a brass horn section — even dressed in black tuxedo performing with the San Francisco Symphony.
Musically, throughout the two and a quarter-hour performance, which began in near darkness with "Complicated Shadows" and concluded with three encores — the first and third joined by twenty-something sisters Rebecca and Megan Lovell of the Georgia roots-rock duo Larkin Poe, whom added beautiful harmonies to classics such as "Blame It on Cain" — the 61-year-old, bespectacled Costello moved freely between a variety of acoustic and electric guitars lined up behind him and a baby grand piano off to the side, digging deep into his catalog to share his classics like "Accidents Will Happen," "Watching the Detectives," "Alison," and "Pump It Up" as well as covers by Los Lobos ("A Matter of Time") and Bob Dylan ("Down On the Bottom"). There were also poignant renditions of some of my personal favorites, "Shipbuilding" and "Town Cryer," and his lovely rendition of "Ascension Day" was a fitting tribute to Toussaint, whom he collaborated with on the 2006 album The River in Reverse in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.
Conceptually, in "Detour," the rectangular stage was arranged to resemble a 1960s living room with its focal point being an oversized retro Lupe-O-Tone TV set that served as a delightful prop to show candid, never-before-seen black-and-white family photographs, portraits of personal heroes — including Toussaint and the Bay Area cowboy swing-bluesman Dan Hicks, both recently deceased — and a filmed performance of his father, the band leader Ross MacManus, enthusiastically singing the Pete Seeger-Lee Hays folk standard "If I Had a Hammer" with a Latin dance twist to it. Costello even climbed inside the TV set to perform "Alison" and "Pump It Up" during his second encore.
In between songs, Costello — ever the raconteur — showed why he's also a wonderful conversationalist and gifted storyteller, too. His acerbic banter and delightful repartee was evident as he shared with his audience many intimate stories and anecdotes about his music family — both his father and grandfather were professional musicians and inspired him — growing up in Liverpool at the same time that The Beatles were becoming international rock-and-roll superstars, the origins of his music, parenthood as a father to twin boys with his wife, jazz pianist Diana Krall, and life on the road, that were both revealing and humorous. There were funny reminisces about coming to play San Francisco for the first time in his early twenties back in the 1970s. Much of this was covered in detail in his recent 670-page memoir, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, which showed Costello to be an intelligent, thoughtful, witty and lyrical writer.
In explaining the name he picked for his current group of shows, "Detour," Costello deadpanned, "Where I come from, when people would ask 'Where are you going?' the answer was always 'We're going on de tour.'" It drew nice laughter from the sold-out audience.
With a career spanning four decades — and a few detours along the way — Costello has morphed from "a snotty, defiant New Wave hell-raiser into a distinguished gentleman," wrote the Huffington Post. Now, ever the progressive thinker, mover and shaker, Costello does as he pleases, and these days he's place an emphasis on performing rather than recording. This has given him a chance to gain a new perspective and musical point of view in his celebrated repertoire and to share a nightly, intimate conversation with his audience. Always an in-touch tunesmith, it's reflected in rearranged renditions of many of his old songs, such as "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes," "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," and the blistering guitar loop and distortion in "Watching the Detectives." Costello even found a place — a detour — to cover a few Tin Pan Alley standards, such as the 1930's "Walkin' My Baby Back Home" (which he dedicated to Krall and his twin boys), his own introspective "Jimmie Standing in the Rain" (including a coda of "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?," which he sang un-miced and a capella) and a downbeat version of the 1927 classic "Side by Side."
"Oh, we don't know what's coming tomorrow / Maybe it trouble and sorrow / but we'll travel the road sharing our load / Side by side."
One of the many highlights for this most Baby Boomer crowd included Costello singing "Everyday I Write the Book," which he nicely wrapped into a lovely cover of Nick Lowe's "When I Write the Book."
"Now I can remember like it was only yesterday / Love was young and foolish like a little child at play / But, oh how lovers change, I never dreamed how easily / 'Cause now I'm just a shadow of the boy I used to be."
On this memorable night of musical expression in San Francisco, Costello was as spontaneous as he was entertaining — his setlist changes from night to night — and on this night he slipped in the Grateful Dead's "It Must Have Been the Roses" joined by Larkin Poe during one of the encores. It's easy to see why Costello is such a music fan and champions the works of others.