The world’s oldest enfant terrible, Elvis Costello, performed a long-overdue (for his Iowa fans) concert Oct. 3 at the Paramount Theater in Cedar Rapids. The audience was mostly — like Costello — angry young punks gone grey and sedate, but Costello was equal to the difficult task of staying fresh and relevant. Costello charmed and challenged the audience with both old and new songs. Even his oldest hits gained vitality and currency in his solo performance; rather than rote repetition of former glories, they had the wry wistfulness of a 62-year-old composer reflecting on his remarkable, anything-but-misspent youth.
Before the show began, a giant television behind him played music videos from his early career. Older performers can dread having to compete with their younger selves, but Costello was unfazed; with a back catalog as deep as his he could easily perform for 2 hours without playing any of the songs in the videos. He may not race around the stage and flail his arms as much as he did 30 years ago, but he still pours tremendous energy into his work, and his voice remains one of the great pop instruments of the last 50 years.
While Costello played, the giant television displayed a slideshow of pictures of the young Costello and his family. Between songs he told anecdotes from his life, focusing affectionately on his father, Ross McManus, a singer and trumpeter who toured England relentlessly in the 1950s and ’60s. During a short break before bringing out the opening act Larkin Poe to accompany him for several songs, he played the remarkable video of Ross singing the folk song “If I Had A Hammer” as a Latin rave-up.
He performed several songs from his first album, My Aim Is True — most remarkably the title song, for which he stepped away from microphones and projected his voice, unamplified, into the Paramount’s vaudeville-era hall. “Nothing Clings Like Ivy,” from his 2004 album The Delivery Man, also stood out, enhanced by harmonies and lap steel guitar by the opening group, the two sisters of Larkin Poe. The gentle melody belies a lyric full of conflict and sadness, reflecting Costello’s perennial obsession with love and it’s cruelties.
A simpler moment of fun was “Watching the Detectives,” driven by Costello’s unruly, distorted guitar. The fire of his younger self came across most strongly on “Detectives,” reminiscent of Neil Young’s fascination with guitar noise. Most challenging and interesting were new songs he’s writing for a musical version of A Face In The Crowd, which tells the story of a country singer who becomes a fascist political demagogue. Any question of Costello’s continuing relevance was put to rest by these songs, commenting as they did on the rise of a right-wing crap artist we’re currently enduring.
A Face in the Crowd pulls together the themes that have driven Costello since he started: innocence and the loss of it, heartbreak and betrayal, the toxicity of cynicism. His performance in Cedar Rapids shows that he’s still an irrepressible trouper and troubadour who lives to trod the boards. Even as he looks back fondly on his career, he is following the advice of his fellow Irishman Dylan Thomas, and refusing to go gentle into that good night.