Elvis Costello's Two-Hour Summerfest Marathon

Jul. 5, 2009
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The challenge for Elvis Costello: Whether to spend his hour show playing his old hits or his ample recent material. The solution: Spend two hours playing both.

Anybody hoping to hear a particular song at Costello’s super-sized set Sunday night at Summerfest’s M&I Classic Rock Stage probably walked away happy. Among the highlights: “Everyday I Write the Book,” “Clubland” “I Hope You’re Happy Now,” “Watching the Detectives,” “Radio Radio,” “Accidents Will Happen,” “(I Don’t Want to Go To) Chelsea,” “Uncomplicated,” “Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes,” a rocking version of the not-inherently rocking “Beyond Belief” and a sing-along “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” to close the night. Costello so methodically touched on his career highlights that it almost seemed like an oversight that he neglected to play anything from 1980’s Get Happy!!, his R&B album, but maybe he didn’t have to, since even Costello’s genre experiments—folk, Americana, reggae, rock ’n’ roll—are nonetheless grounded in the R&B songwriting conventions that record made explicit. To prove the point, Costello bent his most celebrated ballad, “Alison,” into a soul medley, boisterously crooning “Try a Little Tenderness,” “Tears of a Clown” and “Suspicious Minds” as if he’d written them himself.

Summerfest’s Classic Rock Stage is where headliners go to die, making a restless shark like Costello an odd fit for the stage. He’s not one to coast on nostalgia. He unceremoniously positioned “Pump it Up” as the second song of his set, denying himself a safe set-closer, and he matched every hit with a deep cut or newer tune, most of which the crowd ate up.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Costello’s set—aside from how fiercely and consistently it rocked and how aggressive a guitarist Costello has become—is how even at two hours it barely scratched the surface of Costello’s songbook. Perhaps wisely, Costello avoided any number that might kill the party, but that decision came at the expense of darker tunes like “Shabby Doll” and “I Want You" not to mention prestige material like his jazz standard “Almost Blue” and his Oscar-nominated “Scarlet Tide.” It’d take a week of shows to do justice to Costello’s entire discography, but last night’s was the perfect, upbeat primer for a celebration like Summerfest.

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