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Elvis Costello live in concert at the Winnipeg Folk Festival on Thursday July 9, 2009.Boris Minkevich

Elvis Costello & The Sugarcanes

  • At Massey Hall
  • On Friday in Toronto

The most palpable wave of wonder that swept over the crowd at Massey Hall on Friday night came when Elvis Costello plucked the uncharacteristically upbeat 1982 single Every Day I Write the Book from his three decades of back catalogue and transformed it into a yearning country-gospel ballad that someone like George Strait might plausibly sing.

This remarkable act of musical reinvention also showed up the humorous aspect of onetime angry-young-geek Costello crossing over into country, as he has done several times before this year's Secret, Profane & Sugarcane album: While the genre mimicry was spot-on, the urbane essence of the song's governing metaphor (a love affair as the composition and marketing of a novel) also made it utterly improbable. If a Nashville star really were to record it, it would have to be redrafted as "Every Day I Read the Good Book."

But such are the pleasures, pains and paradoxes of the kudzu-like creative path of Elvis Costello. To outlast the self-destructive streak that came with his early persona as an incendiary new-wave misanthrope, he ended up taking counsel from the English music-hall tradition in which his father plied the musician's trade. He's become a one-man variety hour, donning and doffing genres (jazz, opera, Broadway, blues) as showily as he did his violet fedora on stage Friday night, stocking his road-show trunk with comic anecdotes and aphorisms and even becoming a Dick-Cavett-like talk-show host on the CTV-Bravo! series Spectacle.

Throw in an idyllic-seeming third marriage (to Canadian jazz star Diana Krall, of course) and first-time fatherhood (with twins) and it looks like a pretty good life. Costello's enjoyment of it was evident live not only in his general bonhomie but in the energy and generosity of the 30-song, 2 ½-hour set, including one new song he said he'd actually written that afternoon (adding, "You think I'm kidding?").

The price of this contentment - and perhaps it's simply that of survival, creatively and otherwise - has been a certain lowering of the stakes. His musical promiscuity also denotes a diminishment of commitment, a certain (typically British) aesthetic distance. In that respect, having just passed his 55th birthday, he may be keeping pace with his aging audience, who on Friday night were expansive with their appreciation, giving several standing ovations, but stingy with self-exposure. They mostly spurned enticements to call-and-response singalongs and almost completely ignored moments obviously designed to spark dancing in the aisles.

Some of that hesitation was probably regional, as Toronto is traditionally not as steeped in country music as many of the spots where the tour will touch down. There was little sign of recognition, for example, when Costello launched into George Jones's The Race Is On as his second-last number or appended Jim Reeves's 1959 classic of sugar-coated bitterness, He'll Have to Go, as an affectingly apt coda to fan favourite Alison.

Indeed, while they were duly impressed by the virtuosity of his nearly all-acoustic (save his own occasional switches to a four-stringed electric tenor guitar) ensemble, it seemed likely that much of the crowd was unaware of how lucky they truly were, as the group Costello calls the Sugarcanes is made up of many of the hottest veteran session players in Nashville, with a bushel of Grammys under their individual big-buckled belts.

This was thanks to Costello's long association with producer T-Bone Burnett, who's best known to city slickers perhaps for his stewardship of the Oh Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack, which also included Sugarcanes such as the dazzling Jerry Douglas on dobro and Stuart Duncan on fiddle. The stage was also graced by the presence of Jim Lauderdale, a star singer-songwriter in his own right, on guitar and honeyed southern vocals whose bona fides contrasted cleverly with Costello's chameleonic cod-twang - a dynamic not fully exploited on Friday, as Lauderdale took only one lead verse, in a cover of the Grateful Dead's Friend of the Devil.

But that's all part of the journey in a Costello show, which also included detours into the life of Hans Christian Andersen and the place of P.T. Barnum in the invention of the American concert business (the subjects of an abortive theatre project whose fragments show up on the new album); a sly reference to the local controversy around actor-turned-songwriter Billy Bob Thornton's own recent Massey Hall appearance; recollections of Johnny Cash (for whom Costello wrote one of the night's most raucous stompers, Hidden Shame); several more countrified repertoire revisitations (after Every Day I Write the Book, the best was probably the zydeco-style Mystery Dance, highlighting Jeff Taylor's accordion); a demonstration of the stage-craft purpose of place-name-dropping songwriting, as Toronto was thrown into the vaudevillian travelogue in the fine new Sulfur to Sugarcane; a Velvet Underground cover and a Celine Dion joke (after which Costello said he'd forgotten the concert was being recorded for CBC Radio 2, and worried he might never again be welcome in Montreal).

Such rich restlessness is what keeps Costello one of the most rewarding live acts in rock - and not just for a guy his age. And for those who sometimes wish he'd kept on startling us with his sting instead, he always has the golden riposte with which he finally bid goodnight: What's So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding?

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