AL.com: Lawrence Specker: 14th March 2015.
Word on Elvis Costello's solo tour is that he tends to roam freely through his extensive catalog, mixing hits and obscurities to come up with something fresh every night. And that's what he did, Friday night at the Mobile Saenger Theatre - but that wasn't the half of it.
A few moments before the performance started, one might have wondered how Costello, or any solo performer for that matter, might stand up to a crowd whose pre-show chatter was so deafeningly loud. But Costello bounded onto the stage without benefit of any fanfare or introduction, radiating confidence and energy, and when he heard the first screech of "we love you," he shot back, "I love you too."
Then he set to work making it stick. Five things that made the performance a very special night:
1. Did he make it personal? Yes, and to a degree that few, if any could have expected. Early in the show, Costello began referring to the fact that he'd played Mobile once before, in 1979. It's true: He played Mobile's Municipal Auditorium (now the Mobile Civic Center) on March 2, 1979, backed by The Attractions. But he didn't end it there. After playing a double handful of songs on guitar he switched to piano for a poignant "Shipbuilding," a song that resonated strongly in the room, given Mobile's history as a World War II boom town with so many hopes pinned on new waterfront industry: "It's just a rumor that was spread around town/ A telegram or a picture postcard/ Within weeks, they'll be re-opening the shipyards/ And notifying the next of kin, once again/ It's all we're skilled in/ We will be shipbuilding/ With all the will in the world/ Diving for dear life/ When we could be diving for pearls ..."
It was a moment that could have served as the climax of a satisfying show, but Costello was barely half done at that point. Nor was he through making it personal. A while later he took up a 12-string guitar for one song and one song only: A full-length, full-bore rendition of Bob Dylan's "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again." You had to wonder: Does Elvis Costello just routinely know this song for some reason? Or did he sit down and learn this very wordy Dylan epic just to impress a theater full of folks in one Deep South port town? No, you didn't really have to wonder that. All you had to do was belt out the "Oh, Mama, can this really be the end" line every time it came around. So that's what pretty much everybody did.
He still wasn't done. He gave a shout-out to Ward Swingle, the Mobile native who went on to international fame as the founder of The Swingle Singers. Ward Swingle dies in January in England. And in March, Elvis Costello came to his hometown and paid tribute to him on the Saenger stage. That is simply incredible. And incredibly classy.
2. He didn't just play the hits, but he definitely played the hits. Maybe he didn't hit everybody's personal favorite. But he did "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes," "Alison," "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," "Watching the Detectives," "Veronica," "Pump It Up," "Every Day I Write the Book" and more.
3. He brought a unique command of dynamics to the stage. Some performers simply try to drown out the audience. Some masters - Buddy Guy being a case in point - know how to draw an audience in by dialing things so far down that people have to shut up and listen, then cranking up the volume again. Costello did that and more, keeping the audience on its toes (often literally) by subverting their expectations of the show's structure. About an hour in, he waved and stepped offstage as if for an intermission, or as if this was going to be a short show with a long encore. But instead of milking it, he quickly returned to the stage. For the rest of the evening, the pattern was for him to play two or three songs, then step off very briefly - long enough for a drink of water - then bound back out for more. It didn't feel like a tease, and after a while it started to feel like he was never going to run out of songs or enthusiasm.
4. Costello didn't fall into the typical singer-songwriter mode of storytelling, explaining where songs came from, and he didn't get overly conversational. But he did share quite a bit, including some revealing thoughts about his musical relationship with his father. His famously sharp sense of humor also was on display now and then, including a jab at "America's Got Talent," and a gleeful description of the way he uses the wicked lyrics of "Wave a White Flag" as a litmus test on his audiences. After playing it, he told Mobile, "I'm thoroughly ashamed of you." That probably means we passed.
5. The last peak was the highest. Costello had gradually escalated his game as guitarist through the course of the evening, alternating between acoustic and electric, between country-tinged fingerpicking and rock strumming. For his final song of the night, he pulled out all the stops, thrashing a battered six-string acoustic on "I Want You." Here in the space of one song he went from fully amplified roar to natural whisper and back, even stepping away from the mic so that the audience heard his voice straight from the stage. Here on one cleverly amplified instrument he produced clean acoustic tones and nasty, reverb-soaked distortion not just in the same song, but at the same time.
Near the end of the show, Costello thanked the audience for its enthusiasm and said "I'm not waiting another 38 years or whatever" to come back. We might not know when he'll make good on that, but after Friday's show we do know one thing: It'll be worth the wait.