Elvis Costello took the stage at Toronto’s Massey Hall on Saturday night, swiftly and alone – he was at the microphone, guitar in hand, before most of the audience even realized he’d made his entrance. He smiled impishly, chewed some gum and launched into a furiously paced acoustic rendition of Welcome to the Working Week.
Costello, it soon became clear, was there to work. He played alone for nearly two and a half hours, including three encores, offering a 32-song set that spanned his career, from his earliest punkish hits to work so fresh he seemed to be rewriting it as he sang. Throughout, he was simply brilliant: charismatic, playful and endlessly energetic.
By the time he hit the set’s fourth song, Alison, so much of what would make the evening special was apparent. Costello worked even his most familiar songs down to their basic structures, and then rebuilt them with new flourishes and turns. Alison, in particular, thrived: The song is a towering work of art, one of the best pop songs of the 20th century, and on this night it rang with new clarity and sadness.
Much of the show’s success was built on Costello’s voice, which, even as he approaches 60, is still nuanced and rich and capable of remarkable acrobatics. It lent heft to the eerie staccato melody of Beyond Belief, rethought as a shimmering, finger-picked near-boogie; it brought the room to complete silence during a haunting rendition of Shipbuilding, played on electric piano to open the first encore. Costello informed the crowd that he’d had to cut the previous evening’s show short, having lost his ability to sing. But in Toronto on Saturday, he was in full and glorious voice.
Late in the evening, he was joined by another fine voice, Toronto’s Ron Sexsmith, who’d spent the first half of the show nearly bursting out of his seat with excitement, fidgeting along to every one of Costello’s hyper-rhythmic twists and turns. He rose from his spot two-thirds of the way through the set and made his way to the side doors, heading backstage. He appeared again at the end of the first encore, joining Costello for a ramshackle rendition of Everyday I Write the Book.
“He taught me how to sing one of my own songs,” Costello said by way of introducing Sexsmith. But over the course of a few hours, it was clear that Elvis was the teacher here. In each of his liquid melodies, you could hear the genius that has influenced Sexsmith and countless others. His songs, stripped bare, were elemental and undeniable.
Elvis Costello plays the Maison symphonique de Montréal on June 29.