Throughout his superb solo set at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall Wednesday night, Elvis Costello constantly reminded the audience that this was his “gospel show.”
The asides came from a quip early in the set, as Costello looked at his surroundings and remarked on the beauty of the hall. It was in good fun, of course, but his assessment of the show may not have been that far off. For two-plus hours — including two generous encores — the venerable English singer-songwriter, fresh off a new collaboration album with hip-hop band The Roots, touched upon all facets of his nearly four-decade career, swinging from volatile rockers to tear-jerking ballads to well-placed covers, as the sold-out house laughed, clapped, stomped and sang along.
Costello took the stage shortly after 8, surrounded by an arsenal of acoustic and electric guitars, a keyboard and three light-up signs that read “On Air,” “Requests” and “Detour,” respectively. Appropriately, Costello did open up the floor to requests late in the set while lighting up the sign, but with the ensuing chaos it was unclear if he really did fulfill any request that he wasn’t already planning on playing. He also ended up using quite a few of the instruments onstage, too, adding to the show’s variety.
He started out in contemplative mode on “Poison Moon,” then slowly built up the energy with “My Little Blue Window,” “Little Atoms” and “Complicated Shadows.” A stripped-down version of “All This Useless Beauty,” from the 1996 album of the same name, was the first of many, many highlights this evening, with Costello pushing his craggy tenor to its limit.
With the evening’s intimate solo setting, Costello was able to elaborate on many of the stories behind the songs. A fiery version of “Dr. Watson, I Presume,” was preceded by one such story about a conversation between Costello and guitarist Doc Watson, while the next song, “Hoover Factory,” came out of Costello’s bus rides to work in the ’70s.
This was intimate but by no means quiet — numerous songs received full-on electric treatment. “Monkey to Man” seethed with rage, while the ferocious “Drum and Bone” a few songs later was something of a companion piece and was delivered with just as much energy, even if Costello was sitting for a bit while performing this one. On the flip side, “Shipbuilding” late in the set featured some mournful piano-playing from Costello, with an emotional “Alison” following to close.
But before that, Costello hit with his best number of the evening, a lengthy, seething version of “Watching the Detectives.” Playing electric guitar, Costello emphasized the song’s eerie verses with hanging, distorted chords and mournful singing. The song eventually devolved into a cacophony of looped guitar lines, building to a heady climax and false stop before Costello sang the final verse in a near-whisper.
The two encores, totaling another 10 or 11 songs, were just as worthy as the main set and included a fun audience shout-along on early classic “(The Angels Want to Wear My) Red Shoes” and some nifty whistling on “A Slow Drag With Josephine.” The show closed out with a stunning performance of “Tripwire,” which also featured a deliberate, drawn-out verse and chorus of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.”