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For more than 2 ½ hours Tuesday night, Elvis Costello guided fans on a tour from his childhood to his early days on tour, through his foray into New Orleans and to his life today as a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
If fans were hoping for Costello to simply play the hits, he didn't. Instead the evening at Kingsbury Hall was true to its billing The Detour taking off the main road and journeying through parts of Costello's catalog you don't always hear on the radio.
It may have left the casual fan feeling a little lost along the way. But there were plenty of familiar tunes in the more than 30 songs Costello played, and they punctuated his often-charming stories of his life, told essentially in three acts on different parts of the stage, with a giant mock-up of a television displaying old photographs including pictures of a young Costello and his family.
It was, to be sure, somewhat self-indulgent Elvis' celebration of all things, well, Elvis but the crowd of 2,000 seemed happy to be along for the ride and Costello proved to be a thorough professional showman, pouring himself into the (mostly) solo set.
Opening Song • Costello hit the stage in dark sunglasses and a dark suit, spiky hair with a line of guitars and images scrolling on the television as he burst right into "Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs Are Taking Over)," a deep cut from his 1991 release "Mighty Like a Rose." He was silhouetted by the screen with the scrolling images, including one that looked to be a bill from a show Costello played with some late greats: David Bowie, Lou Reed and Allen Toussaint. "How the devil are ya?" Costello asked afterward, before explaining the concept of his tour "When my family asks where you're going, you say 'Da tour' " - before diving into "Mystery Dance." Then he told the story of his first time in the United States and a trip to Mexico in a cab with a woman he fancied, but realized it wouldn't work because she wanted to listen to Pink Floyd on the radio. He said he went home and wrote "Accidents Will Happen," the only real hit he played in the first hour of the night.
Crowd Favorite • You probably could've guessed what the crowd most wanted to hear before the doors opened Tuesday. It was, of course, the classic "Alison," which he finally played, now standing inside the giant television set, to kick off an 11-song encore. It was a tender version of the song that Costello has, by now, played thousands of times, but the crowd hooted and stood in appreciation. He followed it up with a version of "Pump It Up" that fell flat without the benefit of the driving rhythm a backup band would normally provide.
Highlight • Two portions of the evening stand out. The first came when Costello left the stage the first time after playing "Watching the Detectives," then returned with the opener, sister act Larkin Poe, who added bluesy guitar and mandolin and soaring harmonies to the next several tracks, including a sweet rendition of "Clown Strike" and "That's Not the Part of Him You're Leaving." The second standout came several songs later, when he played "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes," went into a solid mashup of "When I Write The Book/Every Day I Write the Book" and then "Veronica." He wrapped up a solid set of songs by playing a touching version of "Almost Blue," after it was shouted by someone in the audience.
The Banter • In many ways, the stories Costello sprinkled between songs held together what otherwise might have been a disjointed amalgamation of lesser-known tunes. He told about his father's days as a musician, playing well down the lineup on a show for the Queen Mother that included The Beatles. His father called him a "disgrace to the family" because he wouldn't grow his hair. He told stories about his grandfather, the first in his family who took to music, and stories of his own journeys to America and breaking into the business. "Those were in the days I was trying to rid the world of alcohol by drinking all of it." He told of trying to get a job for a shipping company, then working on computers, where a friend would try to scare computers and women into responding. "He had all the lady-charming skills of a Donald Trump," he said. Most remarkable was his story about getting to work with Toussaint on the 2006 "River in Reverse" album, recorded after Hurricane Katrina, and played "Ascension Day," which they recorded for the track.
In the Crowd • As you might expect, the crowd skewed older, averaging probably late-40s to early-50s, with lots of thick black glasses that would have made Costello proud. The energy was stifled by the Kingsbury Kurse because, while it's a lovely venue, the rows of theater seating always keep a lid on rock show enthusiasm. It wasn't until the encores that a substantial number of people got on their feet, and even then it felt a little awkward and tentative. Also, as the clock crept toward 11 p.m., more and more folks crept to the door between songs, presumably to relieve sitters or prepare for an early morning, leaving the seating at least on the floor about a quarter empty by the time Costello wrapped up the set.
The Opener • Larkin Poe is a sister act made up of Rebecca and Megan Lovell, both of whom were born more than 12 years after Costello began recording, but despite being young and adorbs, the duo delivered some solid rootsy blues, with Rebecca on guitar and mandolin and Megan on slide guitar. Especially sharp was the title track off their new album, "Trouble in Mind," which is due out Friday, and their cover of "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)." And, as mentioned above, they were more than capable of holding their own when backing up Costello on a half-dozen or more songs. Check out this talented duo next time they happen to come through town.