Elvis Costello is a man who has built a legendary career on doing what his audience least expects. Is that really what his fan base wants? Or what Elvis wants? In all likelihood it’s a bit of both.
Wearing his white fedora hat, black-and-gold striped jacket and sunglasses, Costello performed in front of a huge prop — an old-fashioned retro TV set. The show was all Costello, surrounded by a few amps, a wide selection of his favorite acoustic and electric guitars, and a piano. It was geared for Costello to do as he pleased and most of the time it was pleasing to the audience as well, though sometimes the guitar choices and sound mix probably sounded better to Costello than the people in the seats.
Many old favorites were provided, starting off with an opened strummed version of “Watching the Detectives” that included a looped guitar solo that was an unusual novelty. “Radio Radio,” “When I Write the Book,” “Alison,” and other favorites sprinkled the show, all performed with energy and lust by Costello solo on his acoustic guitars. At times looking a bit like Rupert Pupkin he moved across the massive retro television set in the background which showed slides of his favorite images — including some movie stills doctored to include references to his autobiography and eventually vintage photos of his dad from the family album.
His dad, Ross MacManus, was a big-band singer who played the boards with considerable success in post-war pre-Beatles England, recording cover versions of pop songs, playing on BBC Radio, and appearing on television, even once before the Royals. While other kids would wait for their fathers to return from the factory, little Elvis would “take a screwdriver to the back of the TV looking for Dad,” as he recounted to the audience.
The highlight and most unique part of the Santa Barbara show was his cover of the 1930s standard “Walking My Baby Back Home” sung oddly un-miked while strumming one of his old guitars with some damn good whistling. It took a bit to hear in the Arlington’s impaired acoustics, but with Costello sitting in a chair playing his dad’s old songs it became clear he identifies as a journeyman musician especially now that the MTV machine on which he rode to fame has fallen apart.
Clever, genial, and sly, Costello still surprises and keeps it personal, putting his songs and his songwriting front and center stripping back his songs and living on his merits and wits alone.