By Michael Lello
WILKES-BARRE — It took about two and a half hours for Elvis Costello to encapsulate his career Monday night at the F.M. Kirby Center, and the poet, punk and provocateur used every minute of it to full effect, sitting, standing, playing gentle vaudevillian acoustic pieces and strumming his electric guitar furiously to get his point across. After the intimate yet intense solo concert, there was nothing left for the 59-year-old Englishman to give (although he seemed liked he could go all night) and no doubting his place in the pop music pantheon not only as a singer/songwriter, but also as a peerless live act.
Bedecked in his standard fedora, suit and black-framed glasses, Costello dashed onto the stage, strapped on an acoustic guitar and went right into “Possession” from 1980’s “Get Happy!!” on a simple stage adorned with a classic “on-air” radio light. The first big single of the night came early when Costello strummed the opening licks to “Accidents Will Happen.” He engaged a crowd singalong on the repeated “I know” line, stepping away from the mic and then strumming the song back into form.
The upbeat, short-and-sweet, Beatles-esque “No Dancing” was an early treat, as was, in sharp contrast, the poignant and lovelorn “He’s Got You.” “I got the picture that you gave to me/ And it’s signed with love just like it used to be/ The only thing different, the only thing new/ I got the picture, he’s got you,” sang Costello, a master of swirling the romantic and the wry.
“Green Shirt” was relatively complex and gave Costello an opportunity to work some wah wah effects and looping into his electric guitar work, before he deftly switched back to acoustic for two songs about daughters,“You Little Fool” and “Pony St.”
Costello displayed his trademark wit at times, but kept the chatter to a minimum. He introduced “Pardon Me, Madam, My Name Is Eve” by saying, “This here song is about that awkward moment when the first wife meets the second wife.”
“I’m gonna a sing a song now that I hate,” he told the crowd before “Everyday I Write The Book,” explaining that he likes to play it now in an arrangement by Ron Sexsmith – “due to an unfortunate typographical error he was billed as Ron Sexmouth,” Costello joked, adding that Sexsmith his “second favorite Canadian” behind embattled Toronto mayor Rob Ford.
Costello moved over to stage left and answered a fan’s request for “She” with “No chance. Did write it. Don’t like it.” Instead, seated and cross-legged, he treated the audience to a hushed version of 1930s tune “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home,” complete with whistling. “Stella Hurt” was shot through with dark lyrical imagery, like “gutters full of suicides.” “Who made Stella hurt?” Costello sang, before bringing the song to a dramatic conclusion with quietly strummed guitar.
Costello switched back to electric for a dirty “Watching The Detectives,” playing a noisy solo. “Allison,” one of his best-known – and best – songs was delivered with hushed brilliance, Costello elongating the “my” in “my aim is true.” He held up his guitar, doffed his hat and walked offstage.
During two sets of encores – which totaled 12 songs – Costello sounded more like he was just getting warmed up than bringing the show to a close. First up was “Big Boys Cry.” He walked to the front of the stage, stomping to the beat, before ending the song, pointing to keyboards and sitting down behind them for “Almost Blue,” a jazzy ballad. “Shipbuilding” was another quite one, as was Bing Crosby’s “Let’s Put Out The Lights (And Go To Sleep)” — “didn’t we have a lovely evening?” he sang.
Next up was a mishmash of the rockers “Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes” and “Radio Radio” before he closed the first set of encores with “I Want You.” Costello placed his guitar, still feeding back, on a rack and walked offstage.
A full version of “Angels” opened the second group of encores and was followed by the wordy “A Slow Drag With Josephine.” Costello attempted to manipulate dynamics, but as he got quieter, the crowd got louder, shouting song requests while others shushed them. The loutish behavior continued, but Costello – who has a reputation for being cranky – weathered it, strumming along before the assholes tuckered themselves out. He sang a verse at the front of the stage, unamplified, then whistled, making for one of the evening’s most impactful moments. “Not many shows you get two whistling solos,” he boasted. He stomped, sang “Josephine!” and spread his arms; you got the feeling that he knows he’s pretty good.
“Veronica” – co-written with Paul McCartney – was beautifully delivered and would’ve been a fine end to the show, but Costello continued with “Jimmie Standing In The Rain.”
“I’ve been accused of being angry, especially when motherfuckers try to interrupt me from singing,” Costello said. “But you have not met my grandmother.” He explained that his grandfather was a ship’s musician, and his grandmother “held Al Jolson personally responsible” for him losing jobs. Off mic, he sang a snippet of “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?”
The tireless troubadour finished up with “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding,” stomping, gesturing and strumming his electric guitar. Again, the guitar fed back on its rack as he walked off the stage, bringing one of the better shows you will see in your lifetime to close.