Live Review: Elvis Costello at Paramount Theatre 4/26/15

all photos by Alan Lawrence

Elvis Costello was in fine form at his solo show at The Paramount Theatre on Sunday night. The very nearly sold-out crowd was abuzz with anticipation, and there was a palpable sense that this was going to be a special event. The stage was dressed with several guitars, a piano, a high backed chair off to the side with a standing lamp, and a gigantic retro television set as a backdrop, flanked by lit up “DETOUR” and “ON AIR” signs.

Before the house lights dimmed and the show got underway, the TV was playing Costello music videos like “Monkey To Man” and others. While it might seem odd to play videos of the artist about to perform, it is worth remembering that this abundant troubadour has released some 30 studio albums to date. Clearly, he was not going to be able to cover all of his material, so he let the videos warm up the crowd for him.

When the lights finally dimmed and Costello strode out in a dapper blue suit and black banded white hat, the crowd erupted in wild applause. The man has rightfully amassed scores of passionate fans over the years. With no opening act, and just the performer alone on stage, the show immediately had a more intimate feel than might otherwise be expected in the 2,800 seat venue.

Costello kicked off with “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes” from his 1977 debut album, My Aim Is True. The crowd sang along happily with this familiar hit. His voice was on-point and confident from the outset, and remained so throughout the night. Even stripped down to just his acoustic-electric guitar and vocals, the room was filled with a full, warm, satisfying sound. He tended to lean more on crooned versions of songs, though he did manage some crunchy, over-driven rock solos over looped rhythm guitar on some tunes, like “Watching The Detectives”.

Although tempting, it would be a challenge to review every song Costello performed. He seemed hell bent on giving the crowd as much as he could, and perhaps even more than they’d bargained for. The roughly two hour twenty minute set included a triple encore and a staggering thirty songs (more if you count medleys as separate entries)! Yet his voice held up and energy stayed high. He moved from hits to relative rarities to covers, weaving together a night that proved him to be an excellent songwriter, a talented musician, and a consummate entertainer very much still at the top of his game.

Costello announced after the release of his 30th album, 2013’s collaboration with The Roots, Wise Up Ghost, that he was done recording new material and would focus instead on his family and occasional touring. So in some ways this solo show felt like a victory lap. Yet Costello was warm, funny, and seemed fully engaged in the moment, expressing his fondness for the classic opulence of the Paramount. This was a far cry from a rote best-of dragged out of retirement casino show. This man has written far more than his fair share of great songs, and this stripped down concert was a great way to experience them, to let the lyrics and personality shine.

Part of what made the night special was the fact that Costello is not actually on tour, officially. He did a number of dates across the US in March, and embarks on a UK leg in June. But he came to Seattle for a special benefit show on Saturday, and stayed to perform this public show on Sunday. Free from the exhaustion, alienation, and pressures of a busy tour schedule, Costello seemed thoroughly at ease and genuinely enjoying himself for his second night on stage at the Paramount.

At one point he moved off to towards the chair on the side of the stage and said, “I’d like to introduce my special guest for the evening… It’s me!” Which elicited laughter and applause. It is rare to see an artist so completely captivate a crowd without any accompaniment. But Costello pulled it off in spades.

The TV set mostly displayed a sort of test pattern, with old black and white images cycled through in the center, including Costello’s musical father and grandfather, as well as what may have been a photo of Costello in a boyhood cowboy getup. At one point an image of Bing Crosby came on screen. “That’s for the people who came from Tacoma,” Costello said, before launching into a cover of Crosby’s “I Surrender, Dear”. It was a pleasant homage to a famous local, and fit in well with the set of crooners.

At this point, seated on stage, using his warbling and powerful voice to good effect, Costello somehow because simultaneously timeless, yet eminently relevant. His set, like his catalog at large, spanned rock (“Pump It Up”), soul (Ray Charles’ “I Believe To My Soul” and Sam and Dave’s “I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down”), and jazzy standards (like a minor key reworking of “Side By Side”). Peppered with many funny stories (several of dubious veracity), Costello managed to weave his own personal mythology throughout the night.

At a few points, Costello left the comforts of amplification entirely, stepping beyond the microphone and shutting off the pickup in his guitar to let his voice and strumming rise naked and unadorned up into the Paramount’s hushed balcony. It was an act of intimacy and fearlessness that increased his sway over the crowd.

He told touching and hilarious tales of his father, who performed in a dance band in the 60s, and his own experiences as a teenager backing his father on guitar. “I’m up here because of my father,” Costello said. Footage of his dad, Ross McManus, joyfully singing a Latin-tinged take on “If I Had A Hammer” rolled before the encore.

Costello also told a story of falling in love with a lady taxi driver on the way to Mexico and writing a song inspired by their ill-fated romance (“Accidents Will Happen”). Ever the sardonic wise-ass, he said he tries to craft a set list that links songs with a theme. He thought he would go with a theme of love and fidelity for this evening, “but it would be a pretty short show!” Whether the stories were true, apocryphal, or just flat out ridiculous mattered little; these introductions served to deepen the connections to the songs and their performer.

Costello has clearly picked up a few tricks for stage presence over the years, perhaps influenced by his television show “Spectacle”. He moved from seated in the chair, to standing and strutting, to piano, and even played the second encore from inside the giant TV set. The only shortcoming of the show was the occasional projection of words on the TV screen. These animated phrases were not the lyrics to the song currently being played, and served mostly as a distraction. But they were brief intrusions into an otherwise magical evening. This was a finer solo show than anyone could have hoped for.

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