At his solo Lisner Auditorium gig on Friday, Elvis Costello made lots of references to his old self — the angry, American-bashing genius who came to our shores from England four decades ago armed with so many memorable and punkish tunes. Most of the nods came by way of distancing himself from that guy, though not, praise the heavens, from the songs of that era.
Costello, 59, declared early in the evening that the show was “all about peace,” but he didn’t ignore his best battle songs. He sat behind an electric piano for “Shipbuilding,” a 1982 ballad written during the Falklands War that could be regarded as a great period piece were tensions not still occasionally simmering between Argentina and Britain over that same plot of dirt.
Costello also performed “Cinco Minutos Con Vos,” a tune he put on his latest album (“Wise Up Ghost,” recorded with the Roots) born from the same squabble, though told from the Argentinian side. Other selections from the new record included “Come the Meantimes,” “(She Might Be a) Grenade” and “Tripwire.”
He filled most of what he called the “request hour” portion of the show with old favorites. His rendition of 1986’s “Blue Chair” was so great that a member of the adoring yet incredibly respectful crowd immediately requested “Blue Chair” again.
Though lacking a backup band, Costello brought along lots of effects pedals to augment his lone guitar. He used several of them at once to create a wall of noise that he could solo over on “Watching the Detectives” and fuzzed the heck out of the formerly familiar chord progression of his best-known piece of pacifism, “Peace, Love and Understanding.”
But Costello also showed that real rockers don’t need amplification or sound processors to rock out. He banged out chords on a parlor guitar throughout “Brilliant Mistake,” a song from 1986 that was full of fabulous condescension for the ways of the United States — a place “where they pour Coca-Cola just like vintage wine” — and our media (“She said that she was working for the ABC News/It was as much of the alphabet as she knew how to use.”)
He’s softened on us Yanks, of course. The guy who made the tabloids early in his career by saying angry and downright despicable things about Ray Charles and James Brown took time to confess envy for the skills of American artists, singling out the author of the 1930s pop song “Walking My Baby Back Home” (Roy Turk) for crafting the line “Owls go by and they give me the eye.”
“I wanted to write songs like that,” he said, “but you couldn’t do that in 1975 or 1976.”
He also crooned the wholly domestic “Brother Can You Spare a Dime” while standing at the side of the stage, away from any microphones, and letting his still-booming voice fill the hall.
And Costello talked about missing his wife, jazz artist Diana Krall, and their two sons — “American boys,” he pointed out — who he left back home in New York.
Near the end of his two-hour-plus set, Costello strapped on a solid-body Fender electric guitar — of the sort that he played as a young man — and talked about getting in trouble for performing an angry song (“Radio Radio”) on “Saturday Night Live” in 1977 against his record labels’ and producers’ wishes. He explained that he originally wrote it as a happy song and that he wanted to play the original version, which is similar musically but lacks some lyrical rancor. He then coaxed the crowd into singing “tra la las.”
The sounds and mood in the hall were exactly what you’d find at a show by Bruce Springsteen, a happy American singer-songwriter.
McKenna is a freelance writer.