Intimate sets 

Show Review

Elvis Costello
Clowes Hall
Saturday, Oct. 15

In 1999, Elvis Costello and Attractions/Imposters keyboard player Steve Nieve created a two-man wall of sound at the Murat, sticking to classics and obscure fan favorites. In 2003, he returned to the same venue with his full backing band, the Imposters, and blew the audience away with a joyously energetic two-hour rock and roll show.

Saturday night on the Clowes Memorial Hall stage, however, the man stood alone. Four guitars, a couple of amps and a table with water, a mug of tea and a bottle of throat spray were Costello’s only accompaniments. The result was an intimate, intense set that included a wide range of songs: folk, rock, even opera.

When he began the show by walking onto the stage and playing his classic “Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes,” the audience roared their approval — a reaction Costello would relish and use for the entire night. Splicing songs like the Beatles’ “Hide Your Love Away” and Van Morrison’s “Jackie Wilson Said” into his own songs, he kept the performance fresh. He also paused to give humorous history on several of his songs, encouraged the audience to join in call/response sing-alongs and, every now and then, hinted at a few of his philosophical and political beliefs: At the end of his final song, “The Scarlet Tide,” he shocked the crowd with a changed line demanding an end to the Iraq War. At every point during the show, he was certain to make sure his audience — laughing, gasping or singing — was engaged and involved.

Aside from playing several of his well-known tunes, Costello treated the audience to several songs from his recently debuted opera on Hans Christian Andersen, The Secret Songs. Detailing the American debut of what Costello called “the world’s first pop star,” soprano Jenny Lind, and Andersen’s unrequited love for her, the songs ranged from operatic (“How Deep is the Red”) to bawdy and theatrical. A song recounting Lind’s rejection of Andersen by simply handing him a mirror benefited from Costello’s mentioning of his own “unique” looks — he hinted at the parallel between Lind and Andersen, and his own blonde songbird wife, Diana Krall. Fans of every period of his career were able to hear many of his best songs in an entirely new way: Aside from his passionate guitar playing, Costello pushed his voice to its limits, reaching for higher and longer notes with each song he performed. The occasional cracked and flat notes were forgivable — each falter and improvisation made his performance more organic. Aggressive guitar effects and flirting with feedback sometimes worked wonderfully, and occasionally devolved into noise. Still, the two-hour performance showcased one of music’s most powerful songwriters returning to simplicity, and doing it brilliantly.

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