Elvis Costello’s 2016 solo trek isn’t technically a “book tour.” He did one of those, replete with speaking engagements and signings, last fall when he published his memoir, Unfinished Music & Disappearing Ink. But the effects of writing and promoting that tome are felt throughout his part-scripted, part-freestyle “Detour” show, which takes into account that fans have to come to enjoy hearing Costello tell droll stories nearly as much as they like hearing him snarl and coo his way through one of the great songbooks of rock history.
Opening the first of two sold-out shows at L.A.’s Theatre at Ace Hotel Saturday (April 2) with “Complicated Shadows,” Costello had a montage of still photos playing on the giant mock television that dominated his stage design. Although it might have seemed odd to have old black-and-white photos of his ancestors alternating with lurid paperback covers and glamour shots of femmes fatale like Gloria Grahame, that slideshow provided an overture for the themes he’d consistently return to over the subsequent 140 minutes: family, sex, and war… and various combinations thereof.
“Solo show” is a pair of words that can strike fear into the hearts of music fans who prefer their rock rocking, but it’s fair to surmise the Attractions or Imposters were sorely missed by few, even on a volume level. Costello has a penchant for making even hollow-bodied guitars sound like distorted Les Pauls, making the lack of a rhythm section on a “Pump It Up” or “Watching the Detectives” seem incidental. Production design-wise, too, he’s careful to add elements of visual dynamism to the show, not just with that giant TV, but by moving between multiple standing or sitting points through the evening, finally ending up inside that television for an encore mini-set that becomes the lowest-budget live music video of all time.
Although the tour is just hitting American shores, plenty of fans have already seen a version of it, since a filming of a “Detour” concert from last fall’s European leg was screened in January as a one-night theatrical release in dozens of U.S. cinemas, followed by a DVD release. Devotees who saw that and/or read the memoir will be familiar with some of the tales Costello favors over the course of the show. Several involve his grandparents, or his late bandleader father, a British celebrity in his own right (Costello remembers being age 3 and “behind the television with a screwdriver, looking for my dad”). There’s less attention paid here than in the book to the wild days when Costello was “trying to rid the world of alcohol,” although he does comically revive the memory of the sexy cab driver whose very short-lived tryst with the singer inspired the guilt-wracked “Accidents Will Happen.”
Even when he’s retelling a story that the faithful might already know, Costello does put a fresh spin or funnier punchline on things — as, when recalling his days as a nascent computer programmer in the mid-‘70s, he cracks, “I eventually got out of computers and into rock and roll — and those f—ing things followed me.”
The greatest hits all eventually appeared Saturday night, but after a band tour last year opening for Steely Dan in which Costello had time to do almost nothing but, he’s clearly relishing the chance with this outing to reset the context for some more obscure corners of his catalog, as well, and some unlikely covers spanning the last century of popular music. Some of the choices are showing up every night on tour, because they’re tied to a story he likes to tell — a la “Ghost Town,” a song about the low-rent entertainers he grew up around on the English seaside — and some vary from night to night, like the rarely played “Blue Chair” and “Two Little Hitlers,” filling wild card slots for old fan favorites at the Ace opening.
You had to look closely for a political subtext to the show as it progressed — one that Costello did almost nothing to overtly underline, despite a couple of throwaway Trump jokes. It began with the singer moving to piano for a moving cover of Los Lobos’ immigration-themed “Matter of Time,” offered without introduction or explanation. Talking about the hard times his grandfather faced set up several Depression-era anthems: “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home” (offered as a tip of the hat to his absent wife, Diana Krall), a “Side by Side” that was curiously transposed to a minor key, and a mic-less snippet of “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” A song from the recent New Basement Tapes project, “Down on the Bottom,” which found Costello adapting unreleased Bob Dylan lyrics (“and he doesn’t know a thing about it,” the singer quipped), was introduced with the thought that “bad times are coming.” You could hear more intimations of dark clouds in the closing war trilogy of “Shipbuilding,” “Oliver’s Army,” and “The Scarlet Tide,” the last of which replaced his usual “Peace, Love and Understanding” as a more somber show-closer.
But subtext is what that strain remained. Attendees walked away remembering a mostly high-spirited show, especially after Costello was joined for most of the lengthy encores by opening act Larkin Poe, a powerhouse female duo whose vocal and instrumental chops gave a nearly Attractions-level raucousness to their portion of his set. One of the sisters from Larkin Poe, mandolin-playing Rebecca Lovell, provided the harmonies Costello has rarely enjoyed in a band setting, while Megan Lovell whipped off one lap steel solo after another (from a standing position, thanks to her trademark lap steel harness). Listening to the three achieve sublimity on “All the Rage,” one of the best but least heralded songs in Costello’s bitter kiss-off vein, it became clear just how much the guy who wrote so many indelible songs about damaged women benefits from a healthy dose of girl power on stage.
But Larkin Poe didn’t put in the finest guest appearance of the night. That highlight belonged to Costello’s look-alike father, Ross McManus, whose fleet-footed, conga-driven 1960s music video of “If I Had a Hammer” became a minor YouTube sensation after Costello talked it up in his memoir. The son put his dad’s joy-inspiring video on that giant TV during an encore break, and it was a nearly impossible act for even a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer to follow.
“(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes”
“Accidents Will Happen?”
“Two Little Hitlers?”
“Matter of Time” (Los Lobos cover)
“I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down”
“Walkin’ My Baby Back Home” (Johnnie Ray cover)
“When I Was Cruel No. 2”
“Watching the Detectives?”
“When I Write the Book” (Nick Lowe cover)/”Everyday I Write the Book?”
“It’s Not My Time to Go” (Dan Hicks cover)
“Pads, Paws and Claws”
“Blame It on Cain”
“That’s Not the Part of Him You’re Leaving”
“Down on the Bottom”
“All the Rage”
“Pump It Up”
“Side by Side”? (Cliff Edwards cover)
“Jimmie Standing in the Rain”/”Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? ” (Rudy Vallee cover)
“The Scarlet Tide”