Elvis Costello at O'Shaughnessy Auditorium, 6/9/14

Elvis Costello
O'Shaughnessy Auditorium, St. Paul
Monday, June 9, 2014

One power of Elvis Costello is knowing the everyman better than the everyman knows himself. His words have always held that deep, dark, truthful mirror in front of the rest of us, and a solo performance put those erudite, humorous, and illuminating words to the test. Without any Attractions, Imposters, or special guests, this was the first performance on a new solo tour for the 59-year-old dabbler in nearly everything considered rock 'n' roll since the expression was invented.

In mostly black attire -- coat, tie, shirt, and jeans, with accents via his fedora and green socks -- Costello had an enduring cool about him. Between songs, he also wore a twinkling gap-toothed grin at select moments. For well over two hours, Costello worked a stage filled with a few guitars, a keyboard, and a pair of illuminated signs that read "On Air" and "Detour."

See also:
Slideshow: Elvis Costello goes solo at O'Shaughnessy

The current running through Costello's four decades as a songwriter, he pointed out, actually traces back to his performer father's influence, and his grandfather's days playing songs on cruise ships too. Within stories of his early days was an oft-present humility bringing him closer to the audience. Then he'd throw something in like, "I wrote this song in 10 minutes," when referring to "Everyday I Write the Book" to remind us why the tickets were $70. "It was a hit, so I felt guilty," he added. "But not that big of a hit, so I didn't feel that guilty."

For well-traveled songs like "Watching the Detectives," which he's played nightly for most of his career, Costello sent visible shivers up and down our spines by deconstructing the melody a bit and letting experimental guitar work tell the story. The looping dissonant soloing between verses heightened the foreboding aspects of his composition. This wasn't any Bob Dylan-style guessing game. Even if he changed his tune, the lyrical components were still front-and-center to fawn over.

Costello shifted seamlessly -- save a few breaks to walk offstage and possibly decide which songs would appear next in his music stand monitors -- between different styles of material. He unfurled rancor for the jealous anthem "Come the Meantimes" off last year's Wise Up Ghost with the Roots, and added echo to his mic for a call and response with himself. He recomposed his demeanor for the giddy old standard "Walkin' My Baby Back Home" -- complete with one of the night's three whistling solos -- without any hesitation.

"Radio Soul," which dates back to Costello's teen days in Flip City prior to his breakout, was mostly "Radio, Radio" but with less bitterness and more Who-style guitar breaks. He then played a straight version of "Alison," one of the most tender songs of a career half-filled with trying more than a little tenderness. The audience sang with him for the final chorus. Had he closed the night right then and there, it would've been a satisfactory show. But the consummate showman was only a little over half finished with the night.


"When they think Lana Del Rey, they think me," he said while recalling the singer's cancellation last week that put him on as a last-minute add on Late Show With David Letterman. For that appearance, Costello debuted a new song, "The Last Year of My Youth," which he said he had written just the night before. When he played the Cheever-meets-Springsteen tale of attempts to reclaim the golden years again on Monday night, it was a vital moment. You could almost see sparks coming out of his inlaid fingerboard.

A blacker segment followed with "I Want You," another chance to sing one thing and let the electric guitar say another. Costello walked the fine line between stalker and lover, and his right hand kept compulsively attacking the whammy bar to mark the narrator's raising despondency until the whole thing got lost in distortion. For all of the folks who have picked up and loved his jazzier work, his Burt Bacharach phase, and his ballads, it's important not to forget that there's always a still a punk inside him waiting to box your ears.

To close down the night, Costello went back to charming the absolutely insatiable audience, who seemed ready to lie down and let him walk all over them. "Shipbuilding," "In the Mood Again," and "For the Stars" put him behind the keyboard, and provided tons of space for a still-strong throat to unleash some dramatic blue notes and emotive wizardry. He ended with the My Aim Is True-era gem "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes," a songwriter's song that also happens to be catchy enough for the thousands of singalongs it has since inspired.

With almost 40 years in between writing "I won't get any older, now the angels wanna wear my red shoes," and "'til I woke up one day and I was younger than you" on "The Last Year of My Youth," Costello shows an immortality still in progress. But if he didn't know it already, these songs have already earned him that.  

Critic's Notebook

Personal Bias: As a very young man, I got hooked on Elvis Costello's wit and showmanship. He has yet to let me down.

The Crowd: You would not believe the amount of standing ovations delivered by this audience. Pretty much every song prompted one, and then everyone would promptly sit down again.

Overheard: "I'm getting my money's worth tonight."

Random Detail: Here's Costello's "The Last Year of My Youth," as performed on Late Show With David Letterman only a few days prior.


Jack of All Parades
King Horse
Either Side of the Same Town
Last Boat Leaving
Poison Moon
I Cried for You
New Amsterdam / You've Got to Hide Your Love Away (The Beatles)
Ascension Day
Come the Meantimes
Walkin' My Baby Back Home (Roy Turk)
Ghost Train
Beyond Belief
Watching the Detectives
Church Underground
Everyday I Write the Book

Almost Blue
For More Tears
Radio Soul
A Slow Drag With Josephine
Jimmie Standing in the Rain

The Last Year of My Youth
I Want You

(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding
I'm in the Mood Again
For the Stars
(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes

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