It’s likely that several hundred (if not upward of a thousand) people whipped out their smartphones at last night’s Elvis Costello concert and photographed the brightly colored Spinning Songbook that anchored the stage at the Durham Performing Arts Center. At 20-feet high, the mechanism dwarfed the size of Costello and his band, the Imposters—the tight-as-a-tick three-piece of keyboardist Steve Nieve, drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Davey Faragher. It aptly illustrated the magnitude of Costello’s repertoire, which is many times greater than the mere 40 tunes that fit on the wheel.
During the gig’s three relentless hours, with an indefatigability and spontaneity reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen shows of yore, Costello played 35, 40, maybe 50 songs. Honestly, I lost count after the band reeled out an otherworldly psychedelic jam, complete with theremin and feedback that lifted me from my seat. “Mystery Dance,” “Clubland,” “Jealousy,” “Possession,” “Country Darkness,” “Indoor Fireworks,” “Oliver’s Army,” “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love and Understanding,” “Veronica,” “Temptation”: They played them all, and on and on.
The guy I read about in a 1979 music magazine with the release of Armed Forces is the same guy who, 32 years later, tipped his top hat to jazz and took the stage alone to sing “A Slow Drag With Josephine” and “Jimmy Standing in the Rain” from his 2010 National Ransom. (Yes, the rumors are true: He broke out his ukulele.) To take in the breadth and depth of Costello’s songbook in one sitting was overpowering.
Thus is the enduring power of Costello: His songs are architecturally sound (“Alison”), harmonically and rhythmically complex (“Watching the Detectives”) and imminently hummable (“I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down”). Last night, they were human, too.
“We’re going to play songs about love, sex, death and dancing,” Costello told us in Durham. Really, does anything else matter?