Elvis Costello has a cold. Or at least it sure sounds like he does. But last night at the O’Shaugnessy Auditorium in St. Paul it didn’t matter anyway, because unlike Frank Sinatra, Costello’s allure isn’t an impossibly silky croon, it’s gravel. So when he’s hoarse—and he’s always at least kinda hoarse—he’s grooved in . . . Even during a solo set spanning nearly two and a half hours and 28 songs that pushes those rough-hewn vocal chords even closer to their limit in a way an audience member might worry about if not for the fact that Costello’s been tempting that same fate for more than 30 years.
“With a name like Declan McManus they expected me to sing whaling songs,” Costello quipped of the boy he was long ago, touring the fishing villages of England with his father’s band years before the hard-earned rasp, and anti-establishment rock legend-dom that would come to define him.
In fact his age—he’s 59 now—has deepened his appeal. He’s no longer the angry kid who defied NBC’s orders to not play “Radio, Radio” on Saturday Night Live in ‘77 by playing it as ferociously as ever, and he’s the first person to aknowledge that. Midway through the first encore last night when he grabbed an acoustic and finally did launch into “Radio, Radio” it was with a slowed-down serenity that still had passion behind it but was tempered with twangy Pete Townsend-like guitar riffs and even a nod to his former self who struck out with such vitriol against big radio as he laughed and said, “I was a profound 17-year-old,” before retreating back into making his small guitar sound big.
His very next song, the 19th of the night, was “Allison,” and it was only then that you realized Costello was just getting warmed up.
“I’d like to introduce a special guest this evening,” Costello said during one of his handful of conversational interludes, “It’s me!” And with a mischievous sideways glance at the audience, chewing his ever-present gum with ease, he sat, and launched into Henri Mancini-scored “Walking My Baby Back Home.”
There were no Imposters there. Alone on a stage surrounded only by an electric piano and six guitars dutifully lined up behind him, the aging troubadour stood in a faded black, on black, on black suit, crowned with a golden fedora that throughout the evening found all possible positions above his thick black wayfarers but off.
You expect and almost accept the fact that at a certain point a musician’s going to run out of steam, especially an aging one, so when Costello teased out his first encore three songs prior to “Radio, Radio” at what proved to be the halfway point (an hour and 15 songs in) you felt at peace if that was, in fact, it. But when he proceeded to coax another three stage-exiting encores before lingering on stage for five more songs, each of which was poised to be his last until, just when you thought the house lights would rise, he’d gently hold up one finger as though a question and would be knee-deep in "one more song" before the audience knew what hit it . . . As if they would’ve dodged the mighty showman’s punch in the first place.