When an artist's repertoire is as wide and varied as Elvis Costello's, it's hard to know exactly what one will get when attending his concert. Last night's show at Scottsdale Civic Center Amphitheater had all the trappings of a toned-down affair: The amphitheater's lush lawn was covered in blankets and silver-haired NPR listeners, the stage was filled with acoustic guitars, the sound system played a mellow mix of jazz and blues. Taking my place on the grassy knoll, I couldn't help expecting Costello to deliver a polite set befitting his surroundings and audience. After all, the rumor around town was that his wife, smooth jazz chanteuse Diana Krall would be joining him for the second half of his set. Classy, sure, but hardly exciting.
Then Costello started playing, opening with "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes," from his '77 debut, My Aim Is True, and the first stabs at his distorted acoustic guitar blasted away any chance of the quiet artsy evening I feared. While he certainly displayed his range, plucking out witty ragtime numbers, jazzy interludes and bluesy struts, Elvis Costello spent a good portion of the evening playing honest-to-God rock 'n' roll.
Costello took the stage looking utterly spry, dressed in a classy three-piece suit and wide-brimmed hat, all signs pointing to the end of the "Fat Elvis" period of late. He alternately strummed, plucked, and beat the hell out of his guitars, running his acoustics through a series of stomp boxes: distortion, tremolo, echo, a loop station, and even a wah pedal, giving classic tunes like "Veronica" and "High Fidelity" an electrifying sheen, and adding a damaged blues edge to "Bedlam," from 2004's The Delivery Man.
"Elvis!" someone from the crowd shouted.
"Yes," the man responded.
"We love you!"
"We love you too," he laughed. "Me and all my guitars."
And the guitars were all that shared the stage with him; the Diana Krall rumors turned out to be false. "Allow me to introduce my special guest," Costello joked, taking the chair off the the right side of the stage. "It's me," he laughed. Costello's humor graced the crowd all night, and he never seemed to be taking things too seriously.
Costello tried out plenty of new songs on the crowd, and the songs were intriguing; typical Costello characters, cowboy singers riddled with tuberculosis, madmen sentenced to the electric chair, waltzed over dark ragtime rhythms. "This is what rock 'n' roll sounded like in, about 1921," he said before starting into a song about a "forgotten man in an indifferent country."
Costello prefaced one of his biggest hits, "Everyday I Write the Book," by saying he hated the song. Or at least he used to, before his friend Ron Sexsmith "taught him how to sing it." He didn't seem to hate "Allison," another of his most recognized songs, ringing out each line with vigor. Halfway through "Radio Sweetheart" he launched into Van Morrison's "Jackie Wilson Says," leading the crowd through a spirited sing-along. He made all the requisite jokes, goofed about how we'd be able to see the stars were it not for the "bustling metropolis," joked about how he knew one day he might "even play Scottsdale," and changed the lyrics of "Sulfur to Sugarcane" to "I gave up married women, cause I heard it was a sin, but now I'm back in Scottsdale, I might take it up again."
The most inspiring moment of the evening came as Costello offered up an utterly devastating take on "Watching the Detectives." Suggesting the song's reggae roots more than replicating them, he turned the two-tone vibe on its head, fuzzing the chords with thick distortion, howling the lyrics and looping intricate guitar parts with a looping station. Anyone hoping for a mellow night couldn't have been pleased by the resulting feedback and stereo-panned distortion outburst, but looking around, everyone seemed pretty damned pleased.
Costello finished the night with "So Like Candy," co-written by Paul McCartney, before segueing into his version of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood." The crowd shouted the lyrics back at Costello, who relished each verse. As he ended the song, he started speeding up the chords, gaining speed and over-driven bliss as he went. Rock 'n' roll has famously had a hard time aging gracefully ("Burn out or fade away?"). Costello has ridden as bumpy road as any, but as he strutted off the stage, a man utterly satisfied, it didn't seem so far fetched an idea that one could indulge all their various artistic impulses without sacrificing the elements that made them rock 'n' roll in the first place.
Better Than: Any outdoor concert I've ever attended. Last night's weather was beautiful. I hate to use the term magical, but it was seriously that nice.