BY MARK GUARINO | FOR CHICAGO SUN-TIMES MEDIA
An evening with Elvis Costello playing 32 songs spanning four decades over two hours and 30 minutes: That probably describes a dream scenario for anyone who’s followed him over the years, but it happened.
At the Copernicus Center Wednesday, the songwriter performed a solo show surrounded by guitars and a keyboard, topped by a lime-green fedora and armed with nothing to promote other than a career of feisty, wordy, and luminous songs.
The Copernicus Center you say? Yes, the venue, an elegant 1,890-seat former movie palace tucked beside I-90 in Jefferson Park, is largely used for events serving Chicago’s Polish community. Bingo night is Thursday.
Costello separated his set into many segments: acoustic and electric, piano balladry, noise mayhem, country blues, the hits. He took familiar songs and spun them around: “Veronica” sung in different keys; “Radio Soul,” a prototype for the later hit “Radio Radio”; “Watching the Detectives” played on a hollow body electric guitar with certain rhythms recorded to a loop while he orchestrated a series of pedals to make the entire song cascade into electronic chaos.
Destroying the familiar to create something new takes confidence, and it was heard in his playing — the defiant strumming, expert vocal phrasing, even generous spaces between notes on his piano. Costello presented the voice of each song’s narrator as a living, breathing person, their complaints and yearnings on full display. This became especially true during the few times he sat at a keyboard: On songs like “Shipbuilding,” “For More Tears,” and later “For the Stars,” he presented his ability to deliver unusual melodies through just his vocal, and let his fingers gently color moods underneath.
On the more musically straightforward material, he paid a strong debt to the Beatles, explaining how, as an eight-year-old member of a Beatles fan club, writing a song (“Veronica”) with Paul McCartney was a treat (“He wrote the good bits”). Then he paid tribute to John Lennon with a full version of “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” dropped in the middle of “New Amsterdam.”
“I’d like to introduce you to a special guest: Me,” he said at one moment. Really, anyone else would have been a disappointment.
With Father’s Day on the horizon, Costello told several stories of his own, as well as a grandfather; both were professional musicians in the dancehall era. “We’re like the Bach family but without good wigs,” he explained. On “Jimmie Standing in the Rain” and “Last Boat Leaving,” two melancholic songs that told the tale of those two men, and the hardships changing times had on his family.
“Some people have accused me of being angry — Those people have never met my grandmother,” he said.
For a performer who could have easily banged out the hits over 90 minutes and called it a day, Costello showed that what lasts longest are stories and the voices telling them.
Jack of All Parades
Either Side of the Same Town
Watch Your Step
Last Boat Leaving
New Amsterdam/You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away
Come the Meantimes
The End of the Rainbow
The Last Year of My Youth
Walkin’ My Baby Back Home
Man Out of Time
Watching the Detectives
Everyday I Write the Book
For More Tears
Stranger in the House
A Slow Drag With Josephine
Suit of Lights
Jimmie Standing in the Rain
Less Than Zero
The Last Year of My Youth
Couldn’t Call It Unexpected No. 4
For the Stars
(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding