Elvis was in the building Friday night, and the sold-out crowd at the Beacon Theater was eager to see him. Costello, nattily attired in a three-piece suit and accompanied by the Imposters, was clearly just as happy to be there when he took the stage at 9:00 and opened his two-hour set with a rousing “Welcome To The Working Week”.
The show was opened earlier by young Norwegian singer-songwriter Sondre Lerche, who sang several appealing tunes, accompanying himself with some very fine guitar playing. His comfortable stage presence, even in the face of the few boors who needed to reaffirm for him that they were there to see Elvis, endeared him to the rest of the audience. He ought to be heard from in these parts more often, and after Friday night, he likely will be.
Given Costello’s long (and still flourishing) career and his own omnivorous tastes, a setlist for any show is always interesting, and not something you’d want to bet the farm on beforehand. This evening’s was no exception, and while the current tour (entitled The Monkey Speaks His Mind) is in support of his most recent release, The Delivery Man, the two-hour show had Costello dipping deep into his own musical past and included some really well-done covers that Elvis has stamped indelibly with his own musical sensibilities (complete setlist here). His onstage performances are invested with so much energy and so much engagement with his material that even his oldest songs sound fresh and immediate. While his fans don’t always appreciate the musical detours his career has taken, it’s impossible to question his dedication to his work and his determination to give his audience their money’s worth. Both he and the Imposters worked hard and were in fine form throughout the evening.
Not surprisingly, the packed house was enthusiastic in its embrace of such crowd-pleasers as “Watching The Detectives”, “Radio, Radio”, “(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea” and “Pump It Up”, and there were some nice surprises in the form of “Mystery Dance”, “Kinder Murder” and “Clown Strike”. While Costello has never been known as a guitar virtuoso, his playing skills have really developed over the years and were displayed to good advantage during a long version of “Clubland”, which was one of the highlights of the show for me. The newer material was nice to hear in live performance and the tracks I like the best off the album were good here, particularly “Bedlam”, accentuated by Pete Thomas’s frenetic drumming, “Needle Time” and “Monkey To Man”, in which Costello invited the rest of us to sing along.
About two-thirds of the way into the show, Costello introduced blues guitarist Hubert Sumlin, who accompanied him on “Hidden Charms”, a song once recorded by blues legend Howlin’ Wolf, with whom Sumlin played for many years (and which was covered by Costello on Kojak Variety), and featured a little bit of a playful Elvis singing into his guitar pickups.
Costello had cancelled a show because of illness a couple of weeks ago, and towards the end of the evening, his voice was showing signs of hoarseness, made more visible by his idiosyncratic vocal delivery, but he held on through a rousing finish that included an impassioned version of Smokey Robinson’s “You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me” (which Costello frequently pairs with his own “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror” but which stood on its own this evening), “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?” and Nick Lowe’s “Heart Of The City”. He has taken to closing shows on this tour with “The Scarlet Tide”, a lovely ballad that he wrote for the soundtrack of the film, Cold Mountain, and which is also the closing track on The Delivery Man. He sings the last verse off-mic, a stillness falling over the audience for the first time all evening.
The monkey will continue to speak his mind throughout much of the summer – if you manage to catch a show, I doubt you’ll be disappointed.