It’s hard to believe, but rocker-troubadour composer Elvis Costello turns 60 in August. He was once the Angry Young Man of punk rock, making his debut in 1977 with “Alison” and “Watching the Detectives.” He had on air scuffle with “Saturday Night Live,” an unfortunate incident in which he slagged off Ray Charles, and was just a trouble maker. We loved him, and he made wonderful, inventive records.
So 37 years seem to have passed very quickly. And here is Elvis (real name Declan McManus) at Carnegie Hall for the first of two shows. In those years he revealed himself as a passionate musical anthropologist and archivist, whose tastes ran from R&B to country to opera to classical music. He turned what had been a limited voice into a defining instrument that has lasted and grown richer.
The Carnegie Hall gig was solo, no group– no Attractions or Imposters or keyboardist Steve Nieve. It was Costello Unplugged, just accompanying himself on guitar or his own keyboard, for two hours and forty minutes. It was kind of mesmerizing and brilliant. Could the show have been shorter? Sure. But why would you want it to be? Costello is so engaging on stage that between the numerous songs there’s lots of interesting patter, info, and the news that his life now is “awesome.”
Costello weaves his own songs in and out of mini tributes to other musicians. He saluted Teenie Hodges, who just passed away, with a snippet of Al Green’s “Here I Am (Come and Take Me).” The Beatles are given a nod with “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” during Elvis’s own classic “New Amsterdam.” Bob Dylan is cited with a bit of “Time Out of Mind” before Costello delivers a somber version of his almost never heard “Town Cryer.”
He mixes in hits, even though you know he’d rather not. Last night we got “Everyday I Write the Book,” introduced as a song he “hates” but it was “a minor hit.” It’s a great record and a clever song. “Alison,” “Detectives,” “Veronica” were all there. Three songs came from Costello’s best album, “Imperial Bedroom”– “Cryer,” “Beyond Belief,” “Man out of Time.” He also resurrects his song, less well known songs. (See “Come the Meantimes,” a gem.)
There was a surprise addition, not on the set list I swiped later: “Less than Zero,” a song that was misunderstood in the US in 1977 because people thought it was about Lee Harvey Oswald. It was about Sir Oswald Mosely, founder of the British Union of Fascists. It caused Costello to be banned from “Saturday Night Live” (long story) for 22 years. Playing it was a nice bit of closure, as the audience sang along, unaware of the trouble it caused.
The show closed with Nick Lowe’s “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and Understanding.” Costello was just on guitar, and you could close your eyes and imagine the pounding drums that usually punctuate this anthem. It was almost 3 hours since he’d begun, and Costello looked like he was just warming up.
I’ve been in this cult since 1977, so I’m sold. It’s been absolutely fascinating watching the evolution of an artist. And he is one of the last (including Sting and a few others) whose musical roots go back through jazz, vaudeville, show tunes, to forge complex new ideas. Let’s enjoy these guys while we can.