A show billed as “solo” or “an evening with” is usually an advisement or a warning: Take a seat, relax and sedate yourself because the headliner will be on stage strumming a guitar or playing piano or both, alone.
Thursday night, Elvis Costello brought his solo tour to the Uptown Theater. He performed for nearly two and a half hours and delivered more than 30 songs, most of them solo, on guitar or piano. The mood he generated, however, was anything but meditative or sedated.
He had some assistance on a few songs from his opening duo — sisters Megan and Rebecca Lovell, who perform as Larkin Poe — but mostly it was Elvis, alone, on one of his many guitars or at the piano, pulling songs out of his vast catalog and pitching them to an enthusiastic audience that nearly filled the theater.
To carry a room as big as the Uptown, a good one-person show requires an entertainer with either a large, vibrant personality or a deep reservoir of memorable music. Costello brought both. There may be some complaints about the set list. Instead of playing most of his best-known and most beloved songs — he never really had any “hits” — Costello drew from across his diverse discography, including material with the Attractions and the Imposters and collaborations with the Roots and Allen Toussaint.
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As former Kinks founder Ray Davies did on his “Storyteller” tour, Costello (real name Declan MacManus) reminisced throughout the show., telling stories and anecdotes. The stage was equipped with a large, vintage-TV screen that broadcast snide aphorisms (”Just stop playing that ugly drug music”) and old-school images, including a photo of Costello’s grandfather, a French-horn player in the ‘20s, and his father, Ross MacManus, who, in 1963, was part of the Royal Command Performance that featured the Beatles — in which John Lennon asked the royalty and their like to “rattle your jewelry.”
The mammoth set list was filled with highlights. He opened with a classic, “The Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes,” then slipped in and out of his best-known material, hopping from favorites like “Worthless Thing” to lesser-knowns like “Our Little Angel.” Stripped down to acoustic guitar and voice, the arrangements laid bare his songs’ instant melodic appeal and their lyrical potency.
One of the show’s most exhilarating moments came early, when he took a seat at the piano and delivered a slow, gut-thundering version of “Almost Blue” that stilled the room into a thick silence. He followed that with a deconstructed version of “I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down,” then went right into "Ascension Day," followed (on guitar) by a freaky-folk rendition of “Veronica.”
He did justice to "Walking My Baby Back Home," and followed that with "Ghost Train," from his stellar "Get Happy!" album, now 35 years old. Before that one, he talked about his dad getting swept up in the counterculture spirit of the 1960s and growing out his hair so he looked like "Peter Sellers in 'What's New Pussycat' or, for the younger people here, like Austin Powers.
Costello sustained the levity throughout the show. Before "Evey Day I Write the Book," he declared, "Here's a song I hate." After that one, the TV screen showed footage of his father's band performing "If I Had A Hammer" for the queen. Then the Lovell sisters joined him for a few songs, including "Pads, Paws and Claws" and "Love Field," which prompted some couples to stand and slow dance. The peak of their collaboration: "Six Months in Kansas City (Liberty Street)," one of Costello's contributions to "Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes."
He closed with a few favorites: "Pump It Up" and then a stellar rendition of "Alison" on electric guitar. He summoned the Lovells once more for the finale, a raucous rendition of "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" that had the big crowd on its feet, singing along and indulging in an artist whose charm and talents are as true as his aim.
The Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes; Blue Minute; Watch Your Step; Worthless Thing; Our Little Angel; Church Underground; I Hear a Melody; 45; Come the Meantimes ; Almost Blue; I Can't Stand Up for Falling Down; Ascension Day; Veronica; Walking My Baby Back Home; Ghost Train; Toledo; When I Was Cruel No. 2; Watching the Detectives; Every Day I Write the Book; Pads, Paws and Claws; Love Field; Lost on the River No. 12; That’s Not the Part of Him You’re Leaving; Brilliant Mistake; Laughing at Life; Six Months in Kansas City (Liberty Street); Pump It Up; Alison; TV Is the Thing This Year; Jimmie Standing in the Rain/Brother Can You Spare a Dime; (What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding