Live review: Elvis Costello solo (San Francisco, March 30, 2016)

Elvis Costello in San Francisco, March 30, 2016 ©Fred Walder
Elvis Costello in San Francisco, March 30, 2016  ©Fred Walder

With the loss of so many giant entertainment figures over the past few months, many of them at a relatively young age, you can’t blame baby boomers for feeling the chill of mortality these days. That mood was matched by Elvis Costello’s solo “Detour” show at San Francisco’s Masonic auditorium on March 30.  In the stories he shared about his late father Ross MacManus, in the songs offered up to absent collaborators and friends Allen Toussaint and Dan Hicks, and in the slower, contemplative readings he gave “Complicated Shadows” and  “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes,” there were many ghosts onstage Wednesday night with Elvis.

Conceptually and musically, the show felt like a continuation of Elvis’s lyrical, stock-taking memoir, Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink, and the reading/interview/slideshow/concert he gave at the Nourse Theater here last October to promote the book. The middle of the Masonic stage was dominated by a huge box fashioned into a retro TV set. Pre-show, Costello’s music videos played on the TV screen, a canny way to give fans some of the songs that weren’t on the setlist. During the show, the screen played slides from Elvis’s family scrapbook and a sweet video of his father (looking so much like young awkward Elvis) and his band attempting a Latin flavor on the folk song “If I Had A Hammer.”

As Costello explained early in the show (and writes about so beautifully in the book), Ross MacManus, was a big-band singer who enjoyed a bit of renown in post-war England, playing dance halls, recording cover versions of popular songs of the day to be played on BBC Radio and appearing on television. While other kids would wait for their fathers to come home from the office or factory, explained Elvis at the Masonic, he would “take a screwdriver to the back of the TV looking for Dad”.

Unfaithful Music is as much Ross MacManus’s story as it is that of his son. Costello writes of an only child’s love for a father who wasn’t always there, and the connection they shared though music. In telling these intertwined stories, Elvis, who achieved a level of fame his father never did, pulls his dad up along with him. But Elvis also clearly identifies more and more with the journeyman musician now that he’s in middle age, and now that the radio/record company/MTV machine that brought him to fame over the course of his first handful of albums has long been dismantled. Costello now does exactly as he pleases, and he does it in a variety of genres, with the emphasis on the performing rather than the recording. More than Dylan, but less than Springsteen, Costello gives the people what they want in concert — he always plays “Alison” and “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” — but in exchange for those songs, he also gives us the music we need, even if we didn’t realize we needed it.

And that’s what happened at the Masonic, as Elvis offered up a long set heavy on welcome deep tracks (“Church Underground,” “Motel Matches,” “Blame It on Cain,” “Pads, Paws and Claws”) and covers (like Los Lobos’ “A Matter of Time”). Some durable crowd favorites were presented in their alternate forms; “Everyday I Write the Book” was wrapped into a lovely cover of Nick Lowe’s “When I Write the Book,” while “Radio, Radio”  was represented by its early draft, “Radio Soul,” which extols the true salvation of pop music rather than sneering at the medium:

“I was tuning in the shine on the light night dial on the front of my radio
When the man said there’s nothing in the news today except trouble and we all know
One thing we got too much of it is trouble, guess you know that’s true
What we need is a little music, so we’re here to entertain you.”

“What we need is a little music, so we’re here to entertain you.” After the recent string of soul-shaking losses of icons, those lines ring truer than ever. How many of us soothed the shock of David Bowie’s passing by listening to his music obsessively, trying to keep him with us?  But while we were merely fans of Bowie, Costello played on bills with him (and Lou Reed), as a slide on the TV showed us. We might have acutely felt the loss of Allen Toussaint and the Bay Area’s cowboy-swing-bluesman, Dan Hicks, but those people were Elvis’s friends. And the show felt at times  — a gorgeous “Ascension Day” for his The River in Reverse collaborator Toussaint, a quiet, heart-breaking version of Hicks’ “Not My Time to Go” at the piano — as if it had been crafted to allow performer and audience to mourn together. The setlist, and Elvis’s between song stories, kept returning to certain themes: life as a working musician, the shortness of time, what we leave behind.

Not that any of this was gloomy or draggy. Costello was, as always, a witty and genial host, and watching his mischievous “Take that!” expressions after he nailed an unexpected song choice or whipped off blistering, looped guitar work on “Watching the Detectives” was a treat. By the last two of the eleven songs he sang during encores, the Grateful Dead’s “It Must Have Been the Roses” and “Peace, Love and Understanding” (both augmented by opening act, the sister-duo Larkin Poe),  the audience was screaming, literally screaming, like this was a Beatles concert.

The highlights for me were his cover of the 1930’s standard “Walking My Baby Back Home” (which he dedicated to his wife and kids), his own plaintive “Jimmie Standing in the Rain” (with a coda of “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” sung a cappella and unmiked) and, at the piano, a downbeat version of the usually peppy 1927 chestnut “Side by Side.”

“Side by Side” was the key to everything that made this show tick. “Oh, we don’t know what’s coming tomorrow/ Maybe it’s trouble and sorrow/But we’ll travel the road sharing our load/ Side by side.” Here was the perfect expression of how the bond between friends, between family members, between musician and audience, makes life worth living.

But also, “Side by Side,” “Walking My Baby Back Home” and “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” are part of a bygone tradition and style of music-hall popular song, one that Costello draws upon in his empathetic portrait of showbiz has-beens and never-weres “Jimmie Standing in the Rain.” This music belonged to the world his grandfather Pat, also a musician, and his father inhabited. It seems as if Costello has taken on the responsibility of keeping a light shining on this dusty corner of pop tradition. He keeps singing the songs of the dead, keeping them alive.

(A June 2015 stop on the Detour was released as the DVD “Elvis Costello Detour Live at Philharmonic Hall.” Here’s a clip.)

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016