There's Nothing Phony About Elvis Costello's Sincerity, Love and Understanding
Elvis Costello and writer Tom Murphy at a post-show meet-and-greet.
With a stage set like a mythical rendition of childhood in the ’50s and ’60s, including a giant TV center stage and radio studio lights on either side, Elvis Costello spent a full two hours presenting an autobiographical, retrospective performance piece with music rather than anything like a conventional concert. The show featured Costello on stage with a brace of acoustic guitars to choose from; later in the set, he was joined by opening act Larkin Poe for several songs.
The show carried an air of deep nostalgia — but in the best sense. Some of us in the audience grew up with Costello's music, some of us got through difficult times with the help of his sensitive and emotionally refined songwriting and some probably fell in love with his soundtrack. Costello lived the music: Even when using his imagination, he drew from his grandfather's experiences. The emotional truth and honesty of his songs seemed especially immediate without much, if anything, in the way of a backing band.
Between songs, Costello liberally shared anecdotes from his life along with images projected on the TV screen. Interestingly, none of the images were of himself from any point in his career, thus cementing the focus on the subjects themselves, whether a person or a situation. Costello gently cracked wise with a witty, easy self-deprecation. In the middle of relating a story about his father, a man who sang hits of the day on the radio for a living, Costello told us that at one point, his father went from looking like a clean-cut man in classic ’50s style to taking on a visual style akin to that of Peter Sellers in What's New Pussycat? Then he added, “For some of you younger people, like Austin Powers.”
You couldn't help but be touched by Costello's story of his grandfather, Pat MacManus. From being a childhood horn player to being roped in to serve in France during WWI (where he was wounded and spent the rest of the war recovering) to going on to sing for the wealthy and privileged and ultimately giving it up, Pat had it hard. Costello expressed gratitude for his own ability to make his life as a songwriter and performer, carrying on his grandfather's dream. This provided context for his joke that he comes from a long line of really impractical people.
During the show, Costello used different arrangements for familiar favorites like "Radio Radio," playing it down-tempo. He performed inside the TV set for "Alison," “Less Than Zero” and “Pump It Up," using an electric guitar and giving the songs a punk feel with frayed tonal edges and heightened energy. In the context of the whole show, that moment highlighted the other styles of music that Costello has played. He was never fully punk, but the snarl and incisive lyrics made his earliest albums fit into that world. While having roots in pub rock at night and being a computer operator by day, Costello has carved a niche for himself in which he can collaborate with some of popular music's greatest artists, such as master pop songwriter Burt Bacharach (whose “Mexican Divorce” he performed), his late friend and R&B legend Allen Toussaint, or Brian Eno, to name but a few. That versatility was on display all evening. Without having to rub your face in it, Costello crafted a set that took us not only on a journey through his life in music, but also through the lives of his family and friends.
But the show wasn't all quiet, thoughtful moments and jokes. Costello was in high spirits, and when he was joined by Atlanta-based opening act Larkin Poe, whose own soul-Americana set was worthy on its own, it looked like he had rediscovered his youthful joy in playing the music — and that always elevates the performance of a veteran musician. Rebecca Lovell's lively vocal delivery and Megan Lovell's slide-guitar mastery truly augmented already great songs.
Even with minimal set changes from playing piano, standing while playing with guitar, sitting down playing guitar in the "disguise" of a hat and a pair of fake glasses and a fake nose, with or without the Lovell sisters — the whole affair gave Costello an accessibility that translated to the backstage area. A few of us unexpectedly got backstage passes before the show and got to meet Costello. Sometimes you're disappointed to find your heroes are not who you hope they are, but Costello was the same friendly, gracious person post-show that he seemed to be on stage when it could have been an act. Turns out that with Costello, the music is a performance, but the humanity and sincerity are not.
1. Lipstick Vogue
2. I Hope You're Happy Now
3. Accidents Will Happen
4. Ascension Day
5. Church Underground
7. Radio Radio
8. Matter of Time
10. Side By Side [Harry M. Woods cover]
11. Mexican Divorce [Burt Bacharach cover]
12. Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2) [Pink Floyd cover woven on to end of Mexican Divorce]
13. Everyday I Write the Book
14. Walkin' My Baby Back Home
15. Ghost Train
16. Watching the Detectives
17. Pads, Paws and Claws
18. Nothing Clings Like Ivy
19. Clown Strike
20. That's Not the Part of Him You're Leaving
21. Blame It on Cain
22. Down on the Bottom
24. Less Than Zero
25. Pump It Up
26. Jimmie Standing in the Rain
27. (What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding
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