Elvis Costello is a rock star whether he likes it or not

Originally published on City Pages: Friday, November 16, 2018

Elvis Costello and the Imposters at the University of Minnesota, 2018

What would happen if we called BS on Elvis Costello?

No one who attended his three-hour, double-encore performance with the Imposters at the Northrop last night could do this about his music. And they likely wouldn’t find fault with Costello’s stage presence—a timeworn distance, command, and abrasiveness peppered with dry humor and sincerity.

But what if we call out just a single comment, hardly the most inflammatory of his career but one that nonetheless rings false? The 64-year-old stated in a recent interview that he’s not a rock star. “It doesn’t say on my business card, ‘Rock star,’” he said. “I’m just a musician.”

Respectfully, sir: bullshit.

Costello’s rock stardom shone clearly last night from his opening song, “This Year’s Girl,” through his final encore of “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding?” It was there in the swift, pounding rhythms of Costello’s earlier work and in the ’60s pop-infused tracks off his new album, Look Now. It was there in his searing solos, guitar lifted high in the air to hold out a single cutting note, and in the sunglasses he wore at night. “Rock star” is encoded in Costello’s DNA.

But maybe this is ignoring the point Costello wanted to make: He’s not solely a rock star. And the pieces that make up Costello are difficult to categorize, varying widely over his career and from song to song in the live show. If there’s one thing Elvis Costello & the Imposters want to highlight in the Look Now and Then Tour, it’s multiplicity.

This was clear from the setlist. The band performed tracks from throughout Costello’s career, experimenting with the arrangements on many. Some performances remained true to the original recordings, including “Watching the Detectives” and “Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter,” written with Carole King. But “Alison” began with just guitar, then Costello and his two phenomenal backup singers followed along. Even when the full band kicked in around the second verse, the tempo was slower, the instrumentation more subdued than expected.

Costello’s punctuated many of his quick, radio-ready hits with a protracted guitar solo, while some newer songs, such as “Stripping Paper,” received keyboard prefaces from Steve Nieve. As Costello was describing that one as the first song he’d written about interior decorating, someone in the balcony shouted out their admiration. Costello said the female protagonist in his song was about five gimlets in as she carelessly removed wallpaper. “And you’re at six,” he told the fan. “I know that sound. I’m a six or seven gimlet man, myself—well, I was.”

It was clear in the band’s instrumentation. Although Nieve played at least half a dozen pianos, organs, and synthesizers on “Clubland” alone, Costello, bassist Davey Faragher, and drummer Pete Thomas covered a slew of styles—including rock, tango, gospel, and the “uptown pop” of Look Now—with relatively few instrument changes. Costello also displayed his broad vocal range, at times emphasizing that characteristic snarl, at others highlighting vibrato or falsetto, the belted notes of a big band singer, or the passionate testifying of a gospel singer.

It was clear in the way Costello, ever the enigma, carried himself. He stood out as the frontman, the ringleader and main attraction, in black suit and blue-tinted sunglasses. He did share the spotlight with those joining him on stage, calling out each one’s name and at points imploring them to display piano chops or vocal virtuosity. But he also wanted command of the audience, standing stock still and demanding applause at the end of songs with a stone facade, guitar held high, speaking nary a word.

And yet, he also wanted to endear himself, telling stories and making jokes. Early in the night, he commented, “It’s the first night of the tour here.” After a pause, he added: “In Minnesota.” The audience laughed, and that snarl disappeared, momentarily, replaced by a small smile. “We heard you’ve got 10,000 lakes here and wanted to play on the edge of every one of them,” he continued. “And the booking agent said, ‘What the hell are you thinking? At this time of year?’”

So maybe Costello is a nice guy, maybe not. This is what we love about him, and why fans were so concerned when rumors that he was battling an intense form of cancer began to spread earlier this year. Luckily, the rumors, which he didn’t mention at all last night, turned out to be inaccurate. The three-hour Northrop performance proved that Costello is still as tough as ever, and even more complicated than we previously thought. He’s a soul singer, a pianist, a composer, a guitar virtuoso, a true entertainer.

And he’s a rock star, too, goddammit. Not that he doesn’t deserve the right to define himself. But because of everything he is, it’s impossible for anyone, the artist included, to put a single label on Elvis Costello.


This Year’s Girl
Honey Are You Straight or Are You Blind
Don’t Look Now
Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter
Green Shirt
Photographs Can Lie
Hand in Hand
Moods for Moderns
Tears Before Bedtime
Why Won’t Heaven Help Me?
Jimmie Standing in the Rain
Under Lime
Watching the Detectives
He’s Given Me Things
High Fidelity
Unwanted Number
It Takes Time
Everyday I Write the Book

First Encore

Accidents Will Happen
Shot with His Own Gun
Stripping Paper
(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea
Suspect My Tears
Mr. & Mrs. Hush
Pump It Up

Second Encore

A Face in the Crowd
American Gangster Time
(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding?

Critic’s bias: Not long before moving to Minnesota, I encountered a large chalkboard paint mural that said, Before I die, I want to . . . My answer: See Elvis Costello live. I don’t remember how I first heard of Elvis Costello, but I remember the first album of his I, as a high schooler, borrowed from a public library in suburban Indianapolis. When I Was Cruel hooked me, but I had no idea what was in store as I worked through his catalog.

More than that, Costello was a misfit, something I think a lot of fans identify with. When I was reading the biography Complicated Shadows: The Life and Music of Elvis Costello, a friend of my parents who loved Bruce Springsteen said, “Elvis Costello? He’s a really weird dude. Really weird.”

But what I remember most about the book was a story recounting how the young Declan MacManus saw Bruce Springsteen perform at the lauded Hammersmith Odeon in 1975. The now legendary show began with a stripped down, piano-and-vocals-only rendition of “Thunder Road,” after which, Costello turned to his friend and shouted, “He’s done it. He’s done it!” Every track during last night’s concert elicited the same response in me: He’s done it. He’s done it!

Overheard in the crowd: Grumbled, when the auditorium staff announced again the concert would begin shortly yet the bar line wasn’t moving: “What, does Elvis have a bedtime? I mean, fuck.” The man then commented, “The last time I saw Elvis was here in 1976.” A friend, or stranger, he was haranguing in line commented that it’s been quite a while. “Yeah,” he said, “and they still expect me to sit down without a cocktail?”

Note: This concert review originally appeared on the City Pages website on Nov. 16, 2018, and as that Minnesota alt-weekly is, sadly, now defunct and beginning to randomly remove articles, I wanted to preserve it online here.


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