This may sound like blasphemy, but Elvis Costello has had a more consistently impressive career than Elvis Presley.
To be sure, Presley was more important and more influential, and he had a better voice, better hair and better looks. But Costello has been more adventurous, more multidimensional (he writes his own songs in various styles, something Presley didn’t do) and more concerned about artistry, quality and growth. Costello never made a clunker album — or a cheesy movie.
And Presley could not have done what Costello did Monday night in St. Paul at the O’Shaughnessy at St. Catherine University — perform solo for 2¼ hours, accompanying himself on guitar or piano.
Costello’s concert showcased the depth and breadth of his work and his influences — from the first song he wrote (“I was a profound 17-year-old”) to one he wrote last week before going on “Late Night with David Letterman” on one day’s notice to fill in for Lana Del Rey (“because when you think of Lana Del Rey, you think of me”).
It was a rewarding, enriching evening, filled with back stories about Costello’s dad (a singer), grandfather (a musician) and himself. While this was far from the most exhilarating performance the 59-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Famer has given in the Twin Cities since his 1978 debut, the minimalism of the presentation — his first local solo show — made a listener appreciate the depth and complexity of Costello’s lyrics and music.
Surrounded by four guitars on stands and a broadcast-studio sign that proclaimed “ON AIR,” the man in black (save for his beige fedora) seemed quite informal, never bothering to tune his acoustic or electric guitars — or have a roadie do it for him.
He opened on acoustic guitar with “Jack of All Parades,” which name-checks Minnesota’s own Judy Garland. The ensuing swinging riff rocker “King Horse” demonstrated the singer’s love of fast, tongue-twisting wordplay. The country plaint “Either Side of the Same Town” showed the power of his croon, including building to a falsetto wail.
Even though Costello appeared to be working without a set list (though he had screens presumably featuring lyrics in front of his microphone stands), he knew it was time for a more familiar tune, “Veronica,” which he pointed out he’d written with Paul McCartney. “That’s not something you’re supposed to see [happening] when you’re in the Beatles Fan Club,” he quipped.
Indeed, Costello talked about his youth, including his first public performance as a teen sitting in on an out-of-tune guitar with his dad’s band. “Poison Moon,” an outtake from Costello’s 1977 debut “My Aim Is True,” sounded like a tribute to his dad’s music — like a Leon Redbone vaudevillian nugget complete with a whistling solo. In fact, after the whistle-spiked dance selection “A Slow Drag with Josephine” during the encore, Costello observed: “Not many shows get three whistling songs.”
The set was not hit-deprived, but his electric guitar rendition of “Peace Love and Understanding” was pro forma, and “Red Shoes” felt more like a campfire singalong than a sparkplug rocker. However, “Radio Radio” had new resonance when the singer explained that it was about the radio in his heart (with a little Van Morrison thrown in), and “Alison” ached with painful beauty.
Other highlights included the vivid story song “Church Underground”; “Almost Blue,” his piano ballad attempt at a standard; “Watching the Detectives” with its distorted, dissonant and looped guitar; “Shipbuilding” with its jazzy jag piano ending; and the knotty piano piece “For the Stars,” on which he proved he can belt.
The high point, though, might have been the brand new piece, “The Last Year of My Youth.” It sounded like a perfect salute to the retiring Letterman. Or a nod to the ever-increasing sophistication of Costello’s music. In either case, the song seemed to say “thank you, thank you very much.”