Costello's vast songbook appeals to W-B audience

The Times Leader: Brad Patton: 26th November 2013.

WILKES-BARRE — Elvis Costello doesn’t need much to keep an audience spellbound for a couple of hours.

No opening act, no backing band, no bells and whistles – no problem.

For one of his rare solo shows at the F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts on Monday, all Costello had was his trademark black horn-rimmed glasses, a few guitars and – oh yeah – a collection of some of the greatest songs written over the past three-and-a-half decades.

At 7:42 p.m. Monday evening, Costello ran on to the stage wearing a dark suit and matching fedora, grabbed an acoustic guitar, shouted “How are ya!” to the crowd of 1,200 and dove head-first into his opening number, “Possession” from 1980’s “Get Happy!!” album.

The 2003 Rock and Roll Hall of Famer then quickly followed with one of his better-known tunes, “Accidents Will Happen” from 1979’s “Armed Forces,” and told the audience to “do whatever you please” before kicking into “No Dancing” from his 1977 debut “My Aim Is True.”

“I’m just gonna sing anything that comes into my head tonight,” the 59-year-old singer-songwriter said after the third song. He then treated the crowd to a mesmerizing version of Hank Cochran’s “He’s Got You” (made famous as “She’s Got You” by Patsy Cline).

After a great romp through “Green Shirt” (from “Armed Forces”) and “You Little Fool” (from 1982’s “Imperial Bedroom”), Costello admitted to nicking the riff from Van Morrison’s “Domino” for “Living In Paradise” (another tune from “Armed Forces”), brilliantly weaving the two songs together.

“It’s a real pleasure to be here,” he said early in the evening, giving props to both the Kirby Center and Wilkes-Barre native Joseph L. Mankiewicz. “To be where the man who produced ‘Citizen Kane’ (perhaps confusing Joseph with his older brother, Herman, who co-wrote the 1941 masterpiece with Orson Welles) and wrote ‘All About Eve’ is from, I thought I better have my wits about me.”

Mellowed with age

He may not be quite as angry as he used to be, but Costello still displayed his rapier wit throughout the show. He introduced “Mistress and Maid,” one of the songs he co-wrote with Sir Paul McCartney (from McCartney’s 1993 album “Off The Ground”), as “a song I wrote with a knight of the realm.”

Costello then introdcuced his first minor U.S. hit “Everyday I Write The Book” by saying, “Now I’m going to sing a song I hate. I wrote it in about 10 minutes and it almost became a hit and ruined my reputation as an embittered outsider.”

He then played the song that topped out at No. 36 in 1983 in a new arrangement he learned from his “second favorite Canadian” Ron Sexsmith. (Presumably his wife, chanteuse Diana Krall, would be the first.)

After a nifty detour into the 1930s standard “Walking My Baby Back Home,” complete with a whistling solo, Costello brought the main set to a close with “Alison,” his second-ever single from 1977 and perhaps his most famous song (it was voted No. 318 of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” by Rolling Stone magazine).

Returning to the stage less than a minute later, Costello then played a dozen songs as his encore, including gorgeous versions of “Almost Blue” and “Shipbuilding” on electric piano, a reworked “Radio, Radio” with its original lyrics and two tunes from 2010’s “National Ransom” album, “A Slow Drag with Josephine” (including a section off-microphone that had to be delayed while the crowd yelled out requests) and “Jimmie Standing in the Rain,” which segued into a brief a cappella version of “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”

And then perhaps surprisingly, he took requests, including “Veronica” (another song co-written with McCartney and Costello’s biggest hit in the U.S. to date) and “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes.”

He then concluded the stellar show with “What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding” on electric guitar, proving you don’t need a backing band to rock out.