Elvis Costello knows how to charm the pants off an audience. He's done it successfully for more than 40 years as one of his generation's greatest songwriters and performers. He's worked diligently at his craft to attain a special place in the music world. Whether with a simple wink, a friendly smile, or just the right choice of words and upbeat tone of voice, the bespectacled and iconic English musician, who was once described by a critic as a "pop encyclopedia," has become a master of the craft of storytelling.
Now, healthy again after recovering from surgery for a small but very aggressive cancerous malignancy, Costello once again is delighting crowds with his good-natured manner and geniality of performing. He's taking great care not only of himself, but also the stories he's sharing with his audiences, through their lyrics and unusual combination of musical instruments.
On November 4, at the DAR Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., in just the third night of his current 20 city "Look Now and Then" tour — and in what was my 12th Elvis Costello adventure — I saw a show like no other he's given, and I've seen Elvis perform solo; 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 late extraordinary New Orleans pianist Allen Toussaint backed with a brass horn section — even dressed to the nines in a black tuxedo performing with the San Francisco Symphony.
Musically, throughout the evening's two-and-one-half-hour performance, accompanied by the always sharp and in-form Imposters (Nieve on a variety of keyboards, drummer Pete Thomas, and bassist Davey Faragher) and joined by vocalists Kitten Kuroi and Briana Lee, who added soulful backing harmonies to new songs such as "Unwanted Number" and the classic "Alison," the 64-year-old Costello moved freely between introducing 10 new "uptown pop" songs from his recently-released album Look Now such as "Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter," which he co-wrote with Carole King; "Don't Look Now" and "Under Lime." There's a little bit of swagger in Costello these days and as one critic recently remarked, the new material is "full of rich characters loaded with desire and heartache." Costello also dug into his vast catalog of spinning-wheel classics to share "This Year's Girl," which has been remade into the theme song for the HBO series The Deuce; "Clubland," "Green Shirt," "Watching the Detectives," (performed as a spacey solo under a green spotlight for full visual affect); "Pump It Up," and "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding."
Truly a music fan, Costello delights in championing the works of other musicians, from country star George Jones to rock guitarist and producer T Bone Burnett to influential Philadelphia hip-hop band The Roots — even former Beatles icon Paul McCartney — to name just a few whom he's collaborated with over the years. Whether immersing himself in pop, rock and roll, country, Americana, soul or jazz, among the many genres that he's mastered over many years, in concert Costello shares many of the lessons he learned and we're rewarded with songs that are as literate as they are artful.
On Look Now, Costello has revisited his partnership with Burt Bacharach, himself a master songwriter, on three impressionistic tunes, "Don't Look Now," "Photographs Can Lie," and "He's Given Me Things." Bacharach's piano lines, as interpreted and performed live by Nieve, are both poignant and beautiful — and reminded me of some of Bacharach's brilliant late '60s pop collaborations with lyricist Hal David.
Throughout the show's 27 songs, Costello showed he can be acerbic and witty, as well as lamenting and sad. There's a fine balance between rock and balladry in a Costello performance. As his Washington, D.C. concert reminded us, his shows have become more than an exercise in nostalgia and pastiche. I have no doubt that this tour will be a triumph for Costello, providing him with an opportunity for enlivening his mastery of the songwriting form — and with a keen dramatist's eye, too.
Because of Costello's desire to showcase his new songs, his show is now very much of the present. Collectively, his body of work is that of adept storyteller who's learned more than a few things from the past. On this night, Costello took his mostly baby-boomer audience on a musical journey through his expansive songbook that was not only intimate and entertaining, but also humbling and inspiring.