Thursday, June 21 , 2018, 11:37 am | Overcast 65º


Jeff Moehlis: Elvis Costello Brings Something for Everybody

The singer-songwriter plays a diverse set in a solo show at The Arlington Theatre

Elvis Costello has always been hard to classify. His debut album, My Aim Is True, was released in 1977 during the height of punk rock’s ascendance.

He certainly had some punk attitude in those days. For example, against the wishes of Columbia Records, he famously cut short his performance of “Less Than Zero” on Saturday Night Live and launched into “Radio Radio,” a move that kept him off the show for more than a decade. But he clearly was not punk in the same way that the Sex Pistols, The Clash or The Ramones were punk.

Indeed, over the years, Costello has displayed an impressive musical range, including pop, rock, country, classical and, yes, some punk (check out his 1978 album This Year’s Model). Costello’s range and clever lyrics were on display Tuesday night in his solo show in front of an appreciative audience at The Arlington Theatre. His performance will no doubt be remembered as one of the highlights of the 50th season of the UCSB Arts & Lectures series.

Costello kicked off the concert with his song “45,” played on acoustic guitar but enriched by a distorted sound added to the mix. After “Either Side of the Same Town” came an early highlight, “Veronica,” a 1989 pop song co-written with Paul McCartney that became Top 20 hit in the United States.

Unfortunately, these first few songs were marred by latecomers and a full-blown dispute over who was supposed to be sitting in a particular seat. There wasn’t much peace love, and understanding in that section of the theater.

Costello told the audience that he wrote the next song, “Down Among the Wine and Spirits” from his 2009 album Secret, Profane & Sugarcane, after receiving the following advice from his father about singing: “Never, ever look up to a note; always look down.” Costello chuckled and confessed that he was as bewildered by that as the people in the audience.

It was followed by another highlight, “Brilliant Mistake,” with its memorable opening line, “He thought he was the King of America.” Next up was the first of several new songs for the evening — the engaging, delicately fingerpicked “Bullets for the New Born King.”

Somewhat surprisingly, Costello introduced the next tune, “Everyday I Write the Book,” as a song he used to hate “until my friend Ron Sexsmith taught me how to sing it.” He then dropped the tuning of his guitar’s low-E string for the spirited acoustic-funk of “Bedlam.”

Costello then said, “I’d like to introduce you to my very special guest.” He sat down and amusingly declared, “It’s me.” He played two new songs in vintage style, “Jimmie Standing in the Rain” about a cowboy singer hitting English music halls in the 1930s and the amusing “Slow Drag with Josephine.” For the latter song, which he proclaimed was what rock-and-roll sounded like in 1921, he sat on the edge of the stage, and played, sang and whistled unmiked to the rapt audience.

The proceedings returned to more modern times with the wildly received “Watching the Detectives” from his debut album, which featured a guitar solo that grew to a swell of distortion and feedback. This was followed by another song from 1977 — “Radio Sweetheart,” a B-side to Costello’s first single and, he claimed, his first-ever recording. This included a call-and-response with the audience, eventually segueing into Van Morrison’s “Jackie Wilson Said.”

After “God’s Comic” and “River In Reverse” came a heartfelt version of his beloved song “Alison,” which transitioned into “In Another Room.” This wrapped up Costello’s main set, but there was much more to come.

Costello’s encore began with the wildly amusing “Sulphur to Sugercane,” featuring such lyrical gems as “The women in Poughkeepsie / Take their clothes off when they’re tipsy / But I hear in Ypsilanti / They don’t wear any panties.” The next song was introduced as a cover of an obscure folk song from the 1970s about war, with lyrics that started with “I sucked in my final breath, stared into the eyes of death” and ponders “Who was a lucky dog, was it you or me?” (A challenge to readers: Who sang the original version? Contact me if you know.)

The remainder of the encore included the Costello classic “Man Out of Time,” a cover of jazz standard “All or Nothing At All” best known from Frank Sinatra’s version, several new songs and “So Like Candy,” and concluded with “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” which was originally recorded by The Animals and later covered on Costello’s album King of America.

It’s pretty amazing how much musical territory Costello covered with just himself and a forest of guitars. It wasn’t a rock concert, it wasn’t a pop concert and it certainly wasn’t a punk concert. What was it? It was an Elvis Costello concert. Enough said.


Either Side of the Same Town
Down Among the Wine and Spirits
Brilliant Mistake
Bullets for the New Born King
Everyday I Write the Book
Jimmie Standing in the Rain
Slow Drag with Josephine
Watching the Detectives
Radio Sweetheart / Jackie Wilson Said
God’s Comic
River In Reverse
In Another Room


Sulphur to Sugarcane
Lucky Dog
Man Out of Time
All or Nothing At All
The Spell That You Cast
One Bell Ringing
So Like Candy
Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood

Noozhawk contributor Jeff Moehlis is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his Web site,

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