Rant ‘N’ Roll: Elvis Costello Doesn’t Need A Band

Sauntering out onto the stage of the State Theatre in Easton, Pennsylvania, Elvis Costello was impressed. “This place is beautiful,” he gushed. “When was it built?” “1873,” someone shouted out and they were right. The building, starting out as a rather grandiose bank, is a historical landmark in an area (the Lehigh Valley) filled with historical landmarks dating back to the 1700s. It’s also haunted. But that’s another column.

Armed with two acoustic guitars, two electric guitars, a piano and a microphone, Costello put on an epic two-hour solo performance. The cuts ran deep. “King Horse” from 1980’s Get Happy, three from 2004’s The Delivery Man, “Sneaky Feelings” from his 1977 debut and “Lovable” from 1986’s King Of America were amongst the many surprises of a 30-song night. Sure, he made sure to sing “Alison,” but he s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d it out so so slow, it was like hearing the song for the first time. Being the musicologist that he is, it was no surprise he reached back to the Depression Era for the 1932 Rudy Vallee hit “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime,” a song that Republicans tried to have banned from the radio for “anti-capitalist” sentiments. (The lyrics were written by Yip Harburg who also wrote all the songs from The Wizard Of Oz.) Another delightful cover was “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home” from 1930.

With charming between-song banter from this eloquent and erudite Brit, Costello had the crowd in the palm of his hand. It helped to be able to understand every word he sang all night. The State Theatre’s acoustics are second-to-none. Unlike the nearby Sands Entertainment Center in neighboring Bethlehem, whose acoustics are muddled and hazy (at a recent Steve Earle Sands show, you could hardly understand a word he sang), Costello came off clear as a bell. That helps. A lot.

At one point, he was strumming his electric hard as hell to achieve a stunning rock ‘n’ roll synthesis, then put both hands over his head in a “look ma, no hands” gesture. The guitar obviously was equipped with a memory so he could then, while the rhythm kept chugging, play a mean, lean electric guitar solo filled with proper dissonance and feedback. He was rockin’. No band needed.

With enough deep cuts to keep himself satisfied, he made sure to play what the crowd wanted to hear. “OK, it’s request time,” he shouted as the shouts back came fast and furious. It was a good crowd. An Elvis crowd. And they made sure to show their love at the first few bars of every song upon the delicious shock of recognition. And he did ‘em all: from “Accidents Will Happen,” “Every Day I Write The Book” (which he admitted he now hates), “Watching The Detectives” and “The Angels Want To Wear My Red Shoes.”

“Request time is OVER,” he admonished the crowd at one point when the song titles still wafted through the air.

Here’s the clincher: I know it’s hard to believe, but, this guy, who rode in on the punk wave of 1977 as a pissed-off Buddy Holly type (and who played upon that image with a stand-out version of “I’m Not Angry”), sounded better vocally on this night than on any of his CDs.

As a writer, he’s always been influenced by people like Ray Davies of The Kinks, Randy Newman, Dylan and a kind of Beatles/Stones dichotomy that informs his rock. But it’s his roll that’s more interesting: he can’t help but be influenced by his own wife, Diana Krall, and he also has an affinity for New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint (with whom he recorded 2006’s A River In Reverse) and that whole Treme neighborhood in New Orleans (he acted a bit in HBO’s Treme series). So you put that punk/classic rock/Crescent City vibe/blues ‘n’ jazz/torch song balladry side next to his sensitive singer/songwriter side, plus his way with a country song, and you’ve got a renaissance man for the ages. It’s this very eclecticism that garners criticism but he couldn’t care less. He’s a one-of-a-kind musician and to see him go at it for two solid hours—a two-song encore preceded a second eight-song encore—was as spectacular a night as seeing him with the Attractions.

I won’t soon forget it.