Elvis Costello glanced over his shoulder at Constitution Hall last night and quipped, "There's no band back there, is there?" There wasn't. He stood alone on stage, unprotected by arrangements, solos or a rhythm section, and exposed his voice and songs to unsparing scrutiny. When all was said and done, the voice proved chilling and the songs timeless.
Banging out the chords on guitar or piano, Costello presented his songs in their unadorned, original demo form. Stripped down and slowed down, the songs' striking melodies and compressed word play became clearer than ever before. With their elegant climbs through chord after chord, songs like "Kid About It" and "Just a Memory" would have been beautiful if he had nearly scatted them.
New songs like "Peace in Our Time" and "Worthless Thing" effectively skewered President Reagan and MTV with sneaky understatement and sudden twists of irony. Costello also affectionately sang songs by Bob Dylan, Charlie Rich and Jerry Dammers.
When a generation's worth of rock trends have come and gone, the sound of Elvis Costello singing about the lost innocence of an old girl friend, "Alison," will still be as emotionally devastating as it was last night.