Famously bespectacled, suited up, and quirky voiced music icon Elvis Costello took the stage of the Arlington Theatre this past Tuesday accompanied by his vintage guitar collection and a yellow cup of tea. Santa Barbara was the last stop of a rare weeklong string of solo performances in select West Coast cities. Costello spent the night switching guitars and encouraging crowd participation, tossing and turning through a two-plus-hour-long set of old faves, catalogue gems, and recent work.
He fluffed the crowd with a few cuts off his 1977 arrival My Aim Is True; tucked in his popular Paul McCartney collaboration “Veronica” (from 1989’s Spike), and then dug into “Down Among the Wines and Spirits” from 2009’s Secret, Profane & Sugarcane album.
The intimate setting succeeded both in celebrating the songwriter’s depth as a lyricist and, more surprisingly, illuminating his adept skill as a guitarist. Case in point: on his hit, “Watching the Detectives,” Costello tuned down and used his delay effect pedal to create a rhythm guitar loop over which he played lead. Then he detoured from a fairly safe sing-a-long into an unexpected sonic barrage of dissonant notes and wall-of-noise-style feedback. It was a definitive Elvis moment.
Throughout his vast 33-plus year career, Costello has kept people guessing. He’s followed his moody muse through such diverse terrain that, by now, he’s bound to both enthrall and disappoint a portion of his fans. There’s always going to be the ones that want the radio hits; the ones that selfishly wish he would sniff some blow and return to his Trust days, and those that fancy his genre-jumping musicologist forays into jazz, country, and classical. But Elvis doesn’t pander and the audience didn’t seem to mind.
Before going into a newly inspired take on “Everyday I Write the Book,” Costello explained, “My friend [Ron Sexsmith] taught me how to no longer hate this song!” Then he tested out a few brand new jams, like “Josephine” (which he introduced as “a song that sounds like rock n roll sounded in 1921”), and “Jimmy Standing in the Rain” (which he called “the story of a cowboy singer making his way through the English music scene of 1937”).
He received multiple standing ovations and delivered what seemed like a bonus set’s worth of encore material, including a sultry take on Sinatra’s “All or Nothing at All.” It was an apropos sentiment, as if to say “You want me? Then you get the whole package, not just the version you like best.”
The crowd loved his “So Like Candy,” which he cheekily mashed up with the chorus of The Animals “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” Misunderstood? Probably. But, make no mistake, Elvis Costello’s aim remains true, and music still matters to him.