A generation of North Americans discovered Elvis Costello with his 1977 appearance on Saturday Night Live. Disco ruled, punk rock was still just a rumour, and then Costello's scrawny foursome in tight suits was beamed across the continent, playing a brand new, fast-paced music that was both fierce and melodic. They also changed a few lives in the process.
The resemblance to the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show abruptly ended when the singer — who looked like a spastic Buddy Holly and had the nerve to name himself after the barely dead king of rock — stopped playing a song, mumbled something about not having the right to sing that in America, then launched into another tune. The following Monday, I went down to the only cool record store in Saskatoon to buy My Aim Is True. I played it all winter. It contained subliminal messages. One of them was "Get the hell out of Saskatchewan."
That introduction, plus his initial trio of angry young albums, would be a more-than-respectable career for most artists. But that only proved to be the beginning of a prolific musician's odyssey, which involved repeatedly struggling against that first image. Over the course of nearly two dozen albums, Costello ventured into country music, into Chet Baker-style vocal delivery, into recording with a string quartet and into collaborating with Burt Bacharach on last year's Painted From Memory album.
On this international tour, which opened its North American leg in Vancouver, the emphasis is on Costello's voice and songs. The lighting is minimal and the stage is bare except for a small cluster of equipment in the centre. Playing acoustic guitar and dramatically accompanied on grand piano by Steve Nieve (the keyboardist for Costello's backup band the Attractions all those years ago) Elvis delivered powerful reworkings of songs drawn from throughout his career. The audience paid absolutely rapt attention. With the trappings of a band removed, it was surprising what a heartfelt vocalist he is.
The set list? Well, you can't be that prolific and talented a songwriter over the years and not leave out a few dozen of someone's favourites, but seeing as he played about as many songs from his debut album as he did from his most recent, fans from whatever era were likely satisfied. "All This Useless Beauty," "Watching the Detectives," "Everyday I Write the Book," "Almost Blue" and "Painted From Memory" were all mixed up together and belted out in a voice that scarcely needed amplification (at least not as much as it was given during the show's beginning).
The performance was energetic, fun and engaging, and Nieve's piano skills were very impressive, as was the complex interplay with Costello's voice and guitar. Costello himself was relaxed, personable and chatty with the audience, delivering humorous introductions to many songs, describing how or when they were written.
At one point you could even picture him introducing saloon songs like Sinatra. Who would have thought that such an angry young man would grow so gracefully into middle age?