Early on in the evening at his solo stop at the F.M. Kirby Center in Wilkes-Barre, PA, Elvis Costello announced that he was going to play anything that popped into his head. He lived up to that promise, going deep into his seemingly boundless catalog for songs that even hard-core fans might have taken a few minutes to recognize.
For as much as he has strayed from style to style in his career, the consistency of excellence in his songwriting from the very beginning means that even a catch-all solo performance like Monday night’s becomes surprisingly seamless. He dusted off album cuts like “Green Shirt”, “No Dancing”, and “Blame It On Cain” from his earliest LP’s, and they sounded of a piece with later unheralded gems like “Pardon Me, Madam, My Name Is Eve” or “Stella Hurt.” He even unearthed the obscure MacManus/McCartney collaboration “Mistress And Maid” as a treat for the most fervid Elvis archaeologists.
Even though this was a solo show, Costello joked that he would be his own special guest for the night. It was his subtle way of saying that the performance would be more than just an acoustic troubadour kind of thing. A brief stop at the keyboard allowed him to knock “Almost Blue” and “Shipbuilding” out of the park, while his inventive use of effects pedals allowed him to render “Watching The Detectives” and “I Want You” with the same ferocity as their studio versions. And speaking of ferocity, his performance of “Come The Meantimes,” a song which appeared on his brilliant 2013 collaboration with The Roots Wise Up Ghost, proved that the man still does angry eloquence better than anyone.
Costello has always had a knack for finding somewhat unlikely cover songs and bending them to his will. On this night, he brought the house down early with an emotional reading of the Hank Cochran country ballad “He’s Got You” and later put some power pop bounce into “Big Boys Cry,” a 1963 single by Bobby Charles. Even “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home,” made most famous by Nat King Cole, was a tasty morsel in Costello’s all-encompassing musical stew.
Ever the gentleman, Costello kept his cool while a bunch of pinheads in the crowd started shouting out requests during his attempt to play a portion of “A Slow Drag With Josephine” off-mike. Such displays of uncivility are sadly part and parcel of the theater concert-going experience these days, but Costello rose above it, waiting for the shouts to die down before finishing the song with gusto.
To his credit, the final portion of the show was peppered with many of the chestnuts for which people had been calling (although Costello hilariously dismissed one particularly intrepid fellow’s requests for “She” with a terse “No chance.”) In that way, Elvis found a way to please just about everybody on a chilly night in Northeastern Pennsylvania. By the time he left the stage with the guitar feedback from “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love And Understanding?)” still ringing out, some 30 songs and two exhilarating hours or so after he opened up with “Possession” from Get Happy!, the hit-hunters and rarities-obsessed alike were standing in appreciation of this marvelous songwriter and performer currently at another peak in an already-towering career.