Review: Elvis Costello owns the room with compelling solo show at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater
You probably don’t remember the episode of Frasier in which Café Nervosa is overtaken by a boisterous songwriter played by Elvis Costello, prompting the good doctors Crane to seek refuge and cappuccino elsewhere. But I recently caught it on cable, and after watching Costello conquer a much larger room in much the same manner, I now sympathize with Frasier and Niles. When Elvis Costello is on stage, even all by his lonesome, there’s no looking anywhere else.
Costello proved this Monday at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater with a compelling one-man performance that showcased the legendary depth of his songbook, even when each track was stripped more or less to its core. He’s a showman, even solo, and even when he plays to a venue maybe three-quarters full, he gives those who paid every penny’s worth.
Concerts on Costello’s solo “Detour” have been sprawling, two- and three-encore drag-outs, peppered with deep cuts, covers and stories from his life with a pen. With “three or four hundred” songs in his repertoire, Costello could’ve gone all night – and he very nearly did, shuffling through nearly 30 songs over 2 1/2 hours, outlasting many in the audience. And still the evening blew right by, with Costello dusting off chestnuts and polishing old favorites until they sounded as fresh as the day they were written.
Costello’s stage resembled a mini-Pee-wee’s Playhouse seemingly designed to indulge his every musical whim – at least a half-dozen guitars, megaphones, microphones, effects pedals and a piano, all flanking a giant old-school tube TV called the Lupe-O-Tone.
As Costello informed fans early on, his job on this night was to pen a story from the songs he felt inspired to play. What emerged was a loose theme of noir, of slinky Parisian jazz and jaunty folk from another era. After tweaking Clearwater for being the “weird sex capital of Florida,” he eased into the waltzy, smoky After the Fall; when the crowd started feeling its oats following Veronica, he sat down to pluck and whistle Nat King Cole’s leisurely Walkin’ My Baby Back Home. And a late version of the American standard Side By Side got a minor-key piano makeover, suiting it easily for a dank, downtrodden dive. As Costello ages, a husky huff has emerged from the nasal elasticity of his voice; these are the kinds of songs that employ it well.
The setlist was a treat for fans of every Costello era, from his work with both the Attractions and Imposters to songs from his collaborations with Allen Toussaint (the gently plucked Ascension Day), the Roots (the downhill rambler Come the Meantimes) and Burt Bacharach (He’s Given Me Things). Songs from his latest project, the Dylan-reinventing New Basement Tapes, appeared here and there, including Matthew Met Mary, a favorite of Costello’s that didn’t make the project’s 2014 album.
Even Elvis the O.G. punk dropped by for Watching the Detectives, a squealing, dissonant wall of guitars conjured up with a looping pedal that dissolved into avant-garde discord as Costello fired up a megaphone siren. “That’s the kind of music I get paid the big bucks to play,” he deadpanned.
Of course, that’s not true. Costello did deliver his hits, following Watching the Detectives a warm and inviting Everyday I Write the Book, and then, in his second encore, dropping three massive singles in a row – Alison, Radio Radio and Pump It Up – all from a stage inside the Lupe-O-Tone TV. If that was a commentary on how hit pop singles make Costello feel packaged and sold, it didn’t diminish his performance. The riffy reinvention of Pump It Up, in particular, was as cocksure as anything that later Angry Young Brits Oasis or Suede ever dreamed up.
Were there times when a tad more accompaniment might’ve added to the atmosphere? Perhaps. A Mumfordy spin on (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding, one of several songs performed with sisterly, Southern Gothic show openers Larkin Poe, cried out for a kickdrum and tambourine. And oh, my kingdom for a Hammond B3 on the confessional Deep Dark Truthful Mirror!
But it’s hard to complain when Solo Elvis delivers a tune like Church Underground, a lonely, echoing, warbling ghost story whose evocative guitar tones were all Costello needed to captivate the crowd. As he sang, he’d pull away and reel the audience toward him, then step back to the mic and press them back into their seats. On Little Triggers, he took the game a step further by ripping knockout twangs on his six-string, then wandering to the lip of the stage to sing sans amplification, with only shared air between himself and the fans. These are the moments when you can barely breathe, let alone look away.
At the end of Church Underground, Costello rightfully doffed his dapper white cap, but only for a second. Any longer, and a flurry of tips might’ve come flying his way. The world, you see, is Elvis Costello’s coffeehouse. All he needs is a mic, any mic, and sooner or later, he’ll own the whole room.
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*