Hours after the Board of Aldermen approved the sale of the Shubert Theater to its operators, the house was full for a solo set from Elvis Costello accompanied only by his six guitars, an electric keyboard, a lo-fi sound and an occasional and effective simple guitar loop.
Costello’s show Friday evening was a perfect kick-off for a new era at the theater: Costello, the progeny of jazz musicians, has borrowed from and blended the Great American Songbook into his writing and his performances for years. The result was a delicious and revelatory evening of song-smithing and showmanship, particularly so on the historic stage that has seen world premieres of many of the shows that Costello has mined. I know I’ll piss off a bunch of old-time rock and roll fans with this, but honestly, this Elvis is a more deserving King.
Where to start? Speaking of Kings, how about his jaunty version of Nat “King” Cole’s “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home” (words and music by Roy Turk and Fred Ahlert circa 1930) featuring the first of two whistling solos? Or the evocative “Jimmie Standing in the Rain,” inspired by his jazz-playing grandfather coming home during the Depression only to find that the orchestras in the silent movie/vaudeville houses in England had been shut down? Elvis tagged on the chorus to “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” sans mic, filling the entire theater with his haunting voice.
Throughout the evening, Costello did not rely on his best-known work, with precious little material from his first few legendary albums: “Alison,” “Sneaky Feelings,” the more optimistic original version of “Radio, Radio,” known as “Radio Soul,” “Stranger in the House,” a finger-picked “Everyday I Write the Book,” an angsty, abbreviated “What’s So Funny About Peace Love & Understanding.” I was thrilled to hear the masterful and mournful Falklands War memorial “Shipbuilding” stripped down to voice and keyboard.
The fact that the set was not built around a greatest hits crescendo didn’t matter. Costello’s own songbook is so rich and varied, it’s incredible to think that the captivating two-hour song list reportedly duplicated little from an earlier show up I-91 in Northampton, Mass.
The material was obviously keeping him fresh. He pulled up some lesser-known tunes and breathed new life into them, such as “All This Useless Beauty’s” “Starting to Come to Me,” with the lines, “Your tears of pleasure equal measure crocodile and brine,” and “So Like Candy,” a songwriting collaboration with Paul McCartney.
He dropped in references from other songs here and there, like a few lines from Van Morrison’s “Caravan,” and Lieber & Stoller’s “You’re No Good.” (Let’s pretend he was referencing Betty Everett’s original version and not Linda Ronstadt’s.)
Then there are his understated instrumental skills. Since My Aim is True, Costello has been the master of the short & sparky guitar solo. On the Shubert stage he punctuated his falsetto outbursts with just the right exclamation points from his guitar. It was hard not to notice, in fact, some vestigial twitchiness from his early Buddy Holly-geek-punk phase remains in the way he grips the neck of his instruments.
This was never more in evidence than in the excruciatingly beautiful and obsessive rendering of “I Want You,” the plaintive wails of the song accompanied by screeching reverbed and looped guitar that would have earned the respect of Neil Young. Simply stunning.
Then there’s the voice: rich, expressive. Yes, at times it broke (more like chipped). Yes, he arranged some songs to dodge some of the high notes. The man who wrote “From a Whisper to a Scream” must have been referring to his own vocal performances. His voice, like his songs, runs the emotional gamut, from love, to heartbreak, and back again, with wisdom and some delightful turns of lyrical phrases mixed in.
I hope the theater brass was paying attention. This was an evening of song that played to the Shubert’s sweet spot, honoring its past while forging ahead into 2014. The audiences of tomorrow may not know who Frank Loesser is, or Nat “King” Cole for that matter, but a future that is informed by this glorious tradition is bound to be a future worth investing in.