JSOnline: Kathy Flanigan: 6th June, 2014.
In his Milwaukee show, Elvis Costello might play anything
Milwaukee made a chilly first impression on Elvis Costello.
"My first visits were in the winter," he said. "I had no idea how inviting the place would look when you come in summer."
No surprise then that Costello set this trip up for June. Milwaukee is a stop on the solo tour "Last Year of My Youth," which brings Costello to the Riverside Theater on Tuesday. The weather that day, like the set list, is difficult to predict.
"Last Year of My Youth" may or may not refer to Costello's upcoming 60th birthday. It's a retrospective with range beginning with the 1977 "My Aim is True" debut album to last year's "Wise Up Ghost" with The Roots.
For this tour he is without a collaborator and without his longtime band The Imposters.
"I have the freedom in the solo show to tell the story anyway I want," Costello said. He might group together songs dealing with exile and travel and the performing life — a way-of-life experience he shares with his grandfather and father, who were both musicians, and something he does that takes him away from wife, jazz pianist and singer Diana Krall, and the couple's twin 7-year-old sons.
The set list might refer to love and deceit, which is at the heart of another grouping in the Costello songbook. Or the night's show might be inspired by the architecture of the room "which can put you in a certain frame of mind. The room. The pictures on the wall backstage."
"Once you line a few of these up you start to see a story, a theme, that runs through them," he said, hinting that he will play songs that predate "My Aim Is True."
"Some nights it feels right to sing them end on end and some nights it doesn't. It's a little bit of a high wire act that you're not reading off a script."
In some respects, the Costello repertoire is also off script. The angry young man persona was his one shot at getting a record deal. "I had to kind of edit myself to get across. I sang a particular way." Songs were timed to be short. "My Aim Is True" led to "This Year's Model" and all along Costello changed lanes as though he were traveling a cross-country highway.
The angry young man gave way to more nuanced voice stylings. It doesn't make it more difficult to sing songs such as "Welcome to the Working Week" or "I Can't Stand Up for Falling Down" but "it's an interesting proposition to sing songs from my career because I have to sneak up on them."
With that kind of inventory, the question also becomes how to please all the fans.
"That sort of enters into the story, too," Costello said. "We found a number of ways to solve this problem." Two years ago Costello brought back the Spectacular Spinning Songbook first used in 1986. He or an audience member turned the giant carnival wheel to pick songs. Hang the set list.
"By the second time we did it (used the wheel), we really did have too much material," he said.
If Costello has been changing lanes musically, he's often brought someone along for the ride. He's worked with Krall, mezzo-soprano Sofie Von Otter, the Brodsky Quartet and Burt Bacharach.
"When it comes to collaborations and writing songs with people I couldn't have imagined writing with Paul McCartney, Allen Toussaint."
Costello and Toussaint, a New Orleans rhythm and blues legend, played Summerfest in 2006 during a tour for "The River in Reverse." "Nobody could have imagined Katrina," he said of the hurricane that devastated Toussaint's hometown in 2005. The fact that Toussaint would tour with him after that "was so inspiring to me."
Costello is again working with Bacharach almost 20 years after "Painted From Memory."
It's lonely on the road without mates or family along but Costello sounds giddy from the previous night's event where he served as master of ceremonies for the PEN New England Song Lyrics Literary Award. He's been honored there before but this year he was helping to usher in Kris Kristofferson and Randy Newman.
Costello had kind words for the assembled crew, T Bone Burnett, Rosanne Cash, Lyle Lovett, Toussaint and Peter Wolf, but he was especially thrilled to share the stage with Randy Newman.
There is history here. Costello said he tried to write like Newman early on in his career. His sons are fans based on the "Toy Story" movie soundtrack. Costello almost "can't wait until they explore Newman and songs like 'Germany Before the War.'"
It makes sense that the once angry young man is a more seasoned performer these days. That one shot at fame turned scattershot. Costello has tried his hand at acting and his television show "Spectacle," a critical hit, lasted two seasons before "time ran out on it."
"I'm quite happy where I am on the stage," he said. "Three generations of musical people. That's what we do."
IF YOU GO
Who: Elvis Costello
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Riverside Theater, 116 W. Wisconsin Ave.
Tickets: $44.50 and $60, plus service charges. Visit pabsttheater.org or call (414) 286-3663