When Elvis Costello took the stage for his sold-out show at the Arlington Theatre last Wednesday, he found himself surrounded by nearly a dozen artfully placed guitars.
“Is he going to play all of those?” whispered a nearby concertgoer. Indeed he would. The stage, decorated only by those shapely, shiny, six-string, hollow-bodied beauties, acted as a sort of metaphor for Costello’s 30-plus-year career.
Costello is one of the world’s preeminent musical artists with a career spanning from the post-punk of The Imposters that produced works like “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding,” through a long and vital solo career, on into acting in art films, all the way up to his recent bluegrass efforts. He nimbly jumps from one genre to the next, always experimenting, always innovating.
And just because a song has been recorded doesn’t mean that Costello is done with it, as this show amply displayed. Instead of playing stripped-down variants of his greatest hits, Costello reinvented them, often warping them into unrecognizable shapes. This type of inventiveness was especially highlighted by a show-stopping, extra long rendition of “Watching the Detectives” that evolved into a psychedelic cacophony with the aid of ingenious loop pedal work.
At his core, Costello is a bit of a ham, clearly taking great joy in his plethora of knowingly gimmicky stage gags. He was shameless in his claptraps, inciting stomp-a-longs, sing-a-longs, name-dropping Santa Barbara half a dozen times and even working the venue name into a song title.
Instead of hiding the looping pedals, he highlights them, pantomiming the chords, but not actually playing them. Instead of staying on the well-lit stage, he perched on the edge and played a song without so much as the aid of a microphone. The man puts on a show. His stage presence is stellar, and he holds the audience in the palm of his hand, toying and teasing with tongue-in-cheek song intros like, “I used to hate this song, until someone taught me how to sing it.”
One can almost hear the arc of his career in the various voices that Costello chooses for different songs. He still employs the slurred almost southern twang that was his signature on early songs but reveals this affectation as a choice by performing new works in a crisp, clean English accent. He is so versatile an artist that it almost feels like the show was performed by two or three entirely different singers.
And about those new songs: Costello is a real outlier. Whereas most performers of his generation have either died, retired or simply fallen into pathetic self-parody with their more recent lyrics, Costello still seems vital and young. Perhaps it is because his work was always anachronistic and atypical, but the recent selections were not low points or mediocre in any way. Instead they represented some of the show’s highlights. Very few artists in any medium enjoy a second act worth a damn, but if Costello only had the second half of his career, or even only the last third, he might still have reached the same level of popularity and reverence.
Over the course of 110 minutes, broken up by no less than seven standing ovations, Costello demonstrated that just because you have wrinkles, doesn’t mean you ever have to grow old. Even without “Radio, Radio” and “What’s So Funny,” Costello is a rock star. Even when he plays acoustic.