Elvis Costello at the LBC

Santa Rosa, California, was the first stop on Elvis Costello’s “Detour” tour, with Larkin Poe opening — the two harmonizing Lovell rock sisters Megan (slide guitar) and Rebecca (mandolin) — who joined Elvis on the numerous encores. These women have charisma and musical chops of their own, as evidenced during their opening, and showcased as they backed up Elvis himself.

As music lovers came into the reclaimed Luther Burbank Center for the Arts (thanks to the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians, who have so wisely used their re-naming rights), we were treated to a giant TV screen on the stage, running old Elvis Costello MTV videos.

Then, during Elvis’ show, that TV screen showed an ongoing slide show, variously with historical photos, an old movie still, or poetic quotes, which would then fall apart with letters scattering. (Someone called out, “Turn off the TV!” and Elvis shrugged and said “You came here to get AWAY from the TV. But there won’t be any fucking CNN or FOX News on this TV.”)

The TV screen provided the high-stimulation environment people expect from current entertainment, but it punctured the illusion that the anecdotes were spontaneous, since Elvis would start a story after a photo of the subject had already displayed — and he had his back to the screen. That’s the kind of thing you don’t want your audience to catch you at — we like to fantasize that the performer is doing all this just for us, not promiscuously for all audiences throughout the tour.

My highlights: solo Elvis playing over his own sampled bass riffs on “Watching the Detectives,” the trio on “Love Field,” and Elvis’s encore from inside the TV set with “Alison” and “Pump It Up.” I remember other shows like this (from Lucinda Williams, and Rodney Crowell, for instance), where they would play as long as the audience was still responding, so treat encores as indicators of audience interest, and show your appreciation.

My favorite song of the night, though, was “Shipbuilding,” which he performed at a grand piano, and which was deep with the pathos of the hopes of the blue-collar worker, those who understand that jobs come at the cost of the lives of their own boys in war.

Elvis Costello still has the vocal chops to sing solo for more than two hours, punctuated by stories, though the rocky first half-hour played like an opening act for his own show. Still, this is a big, grand, generous show that will only tighten and improve with time — and what a thrill to be part of its development.

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