On Monday night Elvis Costello rocked the roof off of the O’Shaughnessy Auditorium in Saint Paul all by himself. Playing the opening gig of a solo tour, Costello played 29 songs during a more than two hour show. The audience was in the palm of his hand from the very beginning. Costello exited the stage after about 70 minutes, and I was a little worried he wasn’t going to come back, but my fears proved to be unfounded as he sang 13 more songs. But because of that early tease, Costello got a lot of standing ovations-there were definitely some times when I thought to myself, “Well, that might have been the last song, I should stand up, cause he deserves a standing ovation.” And then Elvis would come back for another song.
I’ve seen Elvis Costello in concert once before, with the Imposters on his Spectacular Spinning Songbook tour in 2011. That was an incredible show, but I was very excited to see him solo. He didn’t disappoint. He played 5 or 6 different guitars, and the keyboards on a couple of songs. And he did three whistling solos. The songs covered the entire run of Costello’s career, from an early version of “Radio, Radio,” then called “Radio Soul,” to “The Last Year of My Youth,” which he wrote the night before he performed it on David Letterman’s show last week. This concert also highlighted the amazing variety of songs that Costello has written, from punky rockers like “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes” and “King Horse” to the lovely jazz ballad “I’m in the Mood Again,” and “For the Stars,” which he wrote for opera singer Anne Sofie von Otter. Very few, if any, rock songwriters can match his career for its diversity and its continued brilliance.
Costello was in excellent voice throughout the show, and I think his voice has improved with age. His voice is still powerful, and he showed it off by sometimes going off-mike at the end of songs. Of course, his distinctive vocals could still be heard throughout the hall.
Some highlights of the first half of the concert included the lovely “Veronica,” which he co-wrote with Paul McCartney, a mash-up of “New Amsterdam” and “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” a charming cover of “Walking My Baby Back Home,” a beautiful rendition of “Beyond Belief,” which is one of my very favorite Elvis Costello songs, and performing a duet with himself on guitar loops on “Watching the Detectives.” Costello sang a nice version of “Everyday I Write the Book,” which he prefaced by saying, “I wrote this song in 10 minutes. It was a hit, so I felt guilty. But not that big of a hit, so I didn’t feel that guilty.”
The extended encore held many musical treats, such as a lovely keyboard version of “Almost Blue,” and the aforementioned “Radio Soul.” Elvis also sang a heartfelt rendition of “Alison,” followed by “A Slow Drag with Josephine,” and “Jimmie Standing in the Rain,” two of my favorite songs from his 2010 album “National Ransom.” “Jimmie Standing in the Rain” ended dramatically with Elvis moving off-mike to sing a verse of “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” He also tore it up on a vicious version of “I Want You,” on which he played some wicked guitar. He left the stage, but returned for the final encores of the night, starting with the haunting “Shipbuilding,” performed on the keyboard. Costello then switched to guitar for the inevitable version of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?” Then it was back to the keyboards for a beautiful reading of “I’m in the Mood Again,” from 2003’s underrated “North” album, and “For the Stars,” which Costello introduced as one of the few songs he’s written about songwriting. He closed the show with “Red Shoes.”
Costello told stories during the concert about his father, who was a musician, and his grandfather, who was also a musician who had played on ships on the White Star Line. He said that his grandfather was part of the inspiration for the song “Jimmie Standing in the Rain,” which tells the tale of a Jimmie Rodgers impersonator touring England in the 1930’s.
It was an outstanding concert, you could tell that the crowd just adored Elvis and would have stayed all night. Elvis really seemed to feed off of the crowd’s energy and looked to be having a great time. My wife said to me after the show, “He’s like Shakespeare, it takes me a while to understand what he’s saying, but the more I listen the more I get it.” I thought that was a great comparison, it does take a while to get into Costello’s world. But once you’re there, it’s a fabulous world to be in. After the show, we ran into some friends who have met Elvis before by waiting at the stage door. It was a beautiful night, so we waited for a while and chatted, and lo and behold, Elvis himself soon appeared. He was generous with his limited time, shaking hands, posing for pictures, and signing autographs. I wasn’t able to get close enough to get a picture, but I did get a handshake as he was walking towards his bus. And I learned that he’s left-handed! I knew there was a reason I liked him so much!