Elvis Costello makes a worthy return to Chicago in fast-paced Vic show
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This summer, Elvis Costello canceled a string of European dates in order to recover from minor cancer-related surgery. He returned to the stage on September 15 at Chicago’s Riot Fest. Following an amiable how-do-you-do to the crowd in Douglas Park, Costello addressed the unasked question. “I’m doing fine, thanks,” he said as his loyal band, the Imposters, launched a rowdy “Pump it Up.”
Costello reprised that self-assessment at the Vic Theatre Wednesday night in Chicago, and reminisced about his prior visit. “It seems like just yesterday,” he said. Costello joked that those who searched among the punk upstarts listed on the Riot Fest poster found the Imposters’ name listed with fine print below it stating: “The old guys it’s still okay to love.”
Last Friday, however, Costello canceled a performance in Connecticut due to throat trouble. The decision renewed health-related questions, but it was apparently a simple exercise of caution. If Costello’s doctor has told him to take it easy anytime recently, the singer ignored that advice during a bristling performance at the Vic that clocked in barely under two hours.
Without the restrictions of a festival slot and performing to his own crowd, Costello was at ease and engaging. His pride was apparent while introducing crafty material from new album “Look Now,” spinning stories behind the songs to help listeners connect.
“Sometimes you have to put people on a pedestal, so you can see exactly what they look like,” said Costello while setting up the evocative “Photographs Can Lie.” “Sooner or later, they’re gonna tumble down.” The elegant tune revives Costello’s collaboration with sophisticated jazz-pop maestro Burt Bacharach. Costello described the song as a story about a doting daughter who discovers a love letter in her father’s handwriting. “Only one problem,” he said. “It’s not to her mother.”
In truth, Costello’s vocal performance throughout the night was uneven. He struggled with pitch on “Clubland” while Steve Nieve played sparkling Latin melodies at the piano,. It ranged recklessly behind the beat while drummer Pete Thomas played deft reggae fills during “Watching the Detectives.” Elsewhere, on songs such as “Beyond Belief” and in harmony with two female background vocalists during moody ballad “Alison,” his crooning and interpretation rang as true as his aim.
Regardless, the element of surprise and the Imposters’ hot interplay kept the show captivating for audience and bandmembers alike. Less than two weeks into the “Look Now and Then” tour, set lists have already featured nearly four dozen different songs. Even Elvis didn’t always know what was going to happen next. Following a string of deep cuts including “Hand in Hand” and a piping hot “Shabby Doll,” Costello responded to a call from the crowd. “You want to hear ‘Red Shoes,’” he echoed, raising an eyebrow to his bandmates. “Why not,” he concluded. The Imposters dutifully ripped into “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes.”
Afterward, structure was officially jettisoned in favor of spontaneity. “We’ve just torn up the set list now,” Costello said, promising ample time to burn. Costello then ignited the stately “Under Lime” with punk spunk, before the reliable rhythm section of Thomas and bassist Davey Faragher reeled the arrangement back into form. Upon conclusion of a riveting “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror” two songs later, Costello doffed his trusty Jazzmaster and said, “Thank you, good night.” So much for the night being young.
But then came two generous encores. “Suspect My Tears” was a show-stopping tribute to Motown pop and symphonic soul. Costello got the crowd clapping and singing during 2013’s “Come the Meantimes,” and concluded in sky-high spirits with perpetually-relevant rocker “(What’s So Funny ‘bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.” Despite frayed edges, Costello proved invigorated and unpredictable – a combination well worth return visits.
Jeff Elbel is a local freelance writer.
This Year’s Girl
Honey, Are You Straight or Are You Blind?
Don’t Look Now
Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter
Photographs Can Lie
Hand in Hand
Moods for Moderns
(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes
Watching the Detectives
Deep Dark Truthful Mirror
Come the Meantimes
Everyday I Write the Book
Suspect My Tears
Pump It Up
(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?