LIVE: Elvis Costello @ Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, 11/6/13

Review by Greg Haymes

“Tonight is a gospel show,” Elvis Costello proclaimed not once, not twice, but five times during his solo concert at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall on Wednesday night. So he must have meant it, although I had a hard time weaving the gospel thread through most of the concert.

But then during the second set of encores, he sat down at his electric keyboard and poured himself into “For the Stars,” the title track of the album that he recorded with opera star Annie Sofie Van Otter back in 2001. It was a beautiful, spiritual moment. A transcendent moment amidst a show that was almost uniformly fine.

And then during his final encore of the night, he slid out of “Tripwire” (the only offering from his new album, Wise Up Ghost) and cranked up Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” pausing to repeat the lyric “searching for the light in the darkness” four or five times. Yes, indeed, perhaps it really was a gospel show after all.

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It was also a whistling show. “Not many shows where you get to hear two whistling solos,” Costello commented in the midst of “Sulphur to Sugarcane,” his second whistling solo of the night. Then three songs later he added a third during the jaunty Tin Pan Alley-like ballad, “A Slow Drag With Josephine.”

So maybe it was a whistling gospel show…

Whatever. The sold-out crowd seemed to thoroughly dig whatever Costello was throwing down, and for good reason. He’s a master singer-songwriter. Arguably the best since Dylan. And certainly the most versatile. Really, has anyone else branched out as far and as wide to collaborate with George Jones and Burt Bacharach, Paul McCartney and the Roots, the Brodsky Quartet and Bill Frisell?

One thing it was not, however, was a greatest-hits show. Checking with Allmusic.com in the wake of the concert, I was astonished to find that Costello had racked up only two Top 40 hits – “Veronica” and “Everyday I Write the Book” – neither of which he performed at the Music Hall.

He did offer up two of his best-known early songs – the reggae-tinged “Watching the Detectives” (a scorching, distortion-drenched rendition of the punk-noir classic that included a bullhorn and siren, as well as some looping) and the ballad “Alison” (a hushed, almost a cappella rendition in which Costello’s thumb barely brushed the strings of his guitar) – and they were both certainly highlights of the night.

But so too were his off-mic romp through the wry ballad “Dirty Rotten Shame” (which he explained was inspired by Bill Monroe), the soul-baring “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror” and the haunting “Beyond Belief” (dressed up in finger-picking filagrees).

If there was a miss-step along the way, it was “Mystery Dance,” which just didn’t translate well enough into a solo performance. On the other hand, I always thought it was something of a throw-away, even back then…

He dedicated songs to Doc Watson (“Dr. Watson, I Presume”) and his wife Diana Krall (a bouncy rendition of Nat King Cole’s “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home” with the first whistling solo of the night).

And, yes, of course, he served up “Sulphur to Sugarcane” from 2009’s Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, which name-checks a pair of upstate cities:

“The women in Poughkeepsie
Take their clothes off when they’re tipsy
But in Albany, New York
They love the filthy way I talk
As they gargle with the finest champagne
When they can’t get the grape or the grain”

This show sold-out quickly more than two and a half months ago. Obviously, Elvis Costello could have played a much larger venue. He didn’t, and kudos to him for keeping it small. It was an intimate, solo show, and the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall was the perfect setting for it. Simply magnificent…

SECOND OPINIONS:
Excerpt from Brian McElhiney’s review at The Daily Gazette: “He started out in contemplative mode on ‘Poison Moon,’ then slowly built up the energy with ‘My Little Blue Window,’ ‘Little Atoms’ and ‘Complicated Shadows.’ A stripped-down version of ‘All This Useless Beauty,’ from the 1996 album of the same name, was the first of many, many highlights this evening, with Costello pushing his craggy tenor to its limit. With the evening’s intimate solo setting, Costello was able to elaborate on many of the stories behind the songs. A fiery version of ‘Dr. Watson, I Presume,’ was preceded by one such story about a conversation between Costello and guitarist Doc Watson, while the next song, ‘Hoover Factory,’ came out of Costello’s bus rides to work in the ’70s. This was intimate but by no means quiet — numerous songs received full-on electric treatment. ‘Monkey to Man’ seethed with rage, while the ferocious ‘Drum and Bone’ a few songs later was something of a companion piece and was delivered with just as much energy, even if Costello was sitting for a bit while performing this one. On the flip side, ‘Shipbuilding’ late in the set featured some mournful piano-playing from Costello, with an emotional ‘Alison’ following to close.”

ELVIS COSTELLO SET LIST
Poison Moon
My Little Blue Window
Little Atoms
Complicated Shadows
All This Useless Beauty
Brilliant Mistake
Dr. Watson, I Presume
Hoover Factory
Monkey to Man
Walkin’ My Baby Back Home (Nat King Cole)
Beyond Belief
Drum & Bone
Watching the Detectives
Country Darkness
How Deep Is the Red?
Dirty Rotten Shame (off mic)
Shipbuilding (piano)
Alison
ENCORES
Mystery Dance
Deep Dark Truthful Mirror
Sulphur to Sugarcane
(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes
A Slow Drag With Josephine
Jimmie’s Standing in the Rain > Brother Can You Spare a Dime (a cappella)
SECOND ENCORES
Favourite Hour (piano)
For the Stars (piano)
Less Than Zero
Tripwire > (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding

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