When Elvis Costello illuminated the large stage-floor-level “Request” light three-quarters of the way through his show at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, I did not call out.
Amid hollers for “Pump It Up,” and “Oliver’s Army” (which he did not play that night), and “Alison” and “Red Shoes” (which he did), I racked my brain for a song title. It wasn’t that I couldn’t think of any; I just couldn’t think of one.
I was more than pleased when Costello laid aside the guitar for the first time in the set, moved to the keys and chose the lovely and sad “Shipbuilding”—one of my favorites. But, then, he had a lot of leeway.
Costello’s now-legendary status as New Wave’s Angry Young Man and his distinctive delivery of densely packed lyrics—a delivery often best characterized as a sneer—is an only partial picture of the artist as songwriter. When I first saw Costello live in 1986, he had already penned so many beloved songs that his encores were presented as a game show, complete with a Price Is Right-style wheel spun to select the “hits” to be performed.
If Costello has been less prominent since that time, he’s certainly been no less productive. I haven’t followed him quite so closely as I once did, and last Wednesday’s set included a number of songs that I’d not heard: Momofuku’s “Drum & Bone” and Secret, Profane and Sugarcane’s “How Deep is the Red,” and “Dirty Rotten Shame,” a single and bonus track from that latter album, among them.
It’s a testament to Costello’s lasting abilities as a songwriter that my two favorite songs in the set were both on that list of “new to me.” It’s a testament to his abilities as a performer, as well as to the gorgeous venue, that the first (the aforementioned “Dirty Rotten Shame”) was sung off-mic. Costello’s voice—less sneering than plaintive—just soared in that space.
It’s a further endorsement that the second, the last song of the night, is one of Costello’s very newest. “Tripwire,” from Wise Up Ghost, his collaboration with the Roots, was gently haunting, an ominous lullaby proving that Costello doesn’t have to spit his songs to sell them. (His segue into pal Nick Lowe’s “Peace Love and Understanding” was just icing.)