Burlington Free Press: Brent Hallenbeck: 4th November 2013.
For those of us of a certain, ahem, vintage, and with a prediliction for music slightly out of the pop-radio norm, Elvis Costello was a pretty big deal in the late ’70s and early ’80s. My older sister brought his early albums with the Attractions home from college, and songs like “Radio Radio,” “Watching the Detectives” and “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea” soon became a part of my permanent life soundtrack.
I’ve only paid sporadic attention to his post-Attractions solo career in the past couple of decades, which has veered wildly through pop and rock, country, classical and all sorts of sounds in between. I did attend an ’80s-themed party a few years ago dressed as Elvis Costello, which wasn’t hard to pull off because I’m also a bespectacled nerd and have plenty of ’80s-themed clothes hanging in my closet. But even with that sporadic attention in recent years I still knew as soon as I heard he was coming that I wanted to go to Costello’s concert Saturday night at the Flynn Center.
I had only seen him once before, with the Attractions opening for The Police on a reunion tour at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center five years ago or so. My wife, sister and I were too far away on the expansive SPAC grounds to really appreciate the show. My wife and I went to the Flynn on Saturday, and while we weren’t close – toward the back of the balcony – the sound system was so great and the night was so intimate it didn’t feel like there was much distance at all between us and Elvis.
He hasn’t been to Burlington for ages – 1989, he said near the start of the show – and the sold-out crowd was clearly happy he was back, cheering loudly at the end of all of the more than two dozen songs he performed in a two-hour, two-encore solo (and mostly acoustic) set of music. The best concerts are revelations, even when you think you know the musician. I have always thought of Elvis Costello as an interesting lyricist with a unique vocal personality. But fairly soon in his Saturday set, during the sweet ”Either Side of the Same Town,” he started belting out and I realized, “Hey, this guy can sing.” The rest of the night for me was about focusing on how he brings more than personality to his singing; he brings serious skills.
Earlier Saturday I was listening to an Elvis Costello “best of” CD at home when “Indoor Fireworks” came on. I happened to be drinking coffee and looking out the window at the birds and squirrels cavorting in our backyard when the song started; it was a gray Saturday afternoon and the bluesy country vibe fit the mood perfectly. Hearing him sing that melancholy tune in the Flynn just a few hours later quickly brought me back to that peaceful moment in my kitchen and made me realize once again how powerfully evocative music can be.
He concluded the night with a streamlined version of “Alison,” the song that gave him the title for his first album, “My Aim Is True.” It was stunning, just gorgeous, and he sang off-mike just enough to bring that point home to me again how powerful his voice can be. For the second encore he brought out his electric guitar for a raucous version of “I Want You,” with the fuzzed-out tone fitting perfectly with the lyrical themes of rage and jealousy.
Most of the comments I saw on social media after the concert raved about the show, but I did see a few remarks that the setting was a bit too sedate for an Elvis Costello show. He’s not the snotty punk he was in his early days; he’s a crooner now – a rocking crooner, but a crooner nonetheless – so it’s hard to expect he’d play a raucous rock ‘n’ roll show at Memorial Auditorium now that he’s pushing 60. I thought the set fit just right inside the Flynn. My all-time favorite show in that theater – one of my favorite concerts of all time – was a freewheeling party thrown by another late ’70s/early ’80s post-punk icon, David Byrne of Talking Heads, in 2004. This show with Elvis Costello was much more sedate, but it might be my second all-time favorite concert ever at the Flynn.
Before my wife and I checked out Elvis Costello we spent an hour and a half or so at Radio Bean celebrating the Burlington coffeehouse’s 13th birthday. They had live music all day long on Saturday, and while there we heard the Jamaican tribute sounds of Steady Betty and some cool acoustic tunes from Ryan Ober. We walked in as Ryan Miller of Guster was playing “Femme Fatale” by the Velvet Underground, paying tribute to Lou Reed and his recent passing. It was packed in the Bean and the music and fun vibes were flowing freely the whole time we were there. If we hadn’t been heading out to Elvis Costello at 8 p.m., we might have stayed all night.