Think of Elvis Costello’s new round of solo performances not so much as a concert tour than as multimedia bonus content for his recently published autobiography, “Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink.”
The show he delivered Saturday at the Theater at Ace Hotel, the first of two sold-out nights at the downtown L.A. venue, dovetails beautifully with his book, giving his audience anecdotes from his life both disarmingly revealing and often uproariously funny.
FOR THE RECORD
An earlier version of this post identified the title of Costello’s autobiography as “Unfinished Music & Disappearing Ink.” It is “Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink.”
For nearly two hours, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee moved between three main posts on the elaborate Detour stage setup, the main piece being a gigantic replica of the ancient Lupe-O-Tone television set he watched growing up in Liverpool in the late ’50s and early ’60s.
As he spoke and sang, images flashed behind him on the screen, shots of his mother, his father, his grandparents and other family members as well as snaps from various periods of his own childhood, adolescence and adult life as one of the most prolific and respected singers and songwriters of the post-Baby Boomer rock generation.
In fact, his portion of the evening began not with the man himself but with the 2005 music video for his version of New Orleans musician Dave Bartholomew’s classic treatise on human nature, “The Monkey (Speaks His Mind). ”
There’s a certain rumor that just can’t be true
That man descended from our noble race
Why, the very idea is a big disgrace
No monkey ever deserted his wife
Starved her baby and ruined her life
That set the tone for Costello’s multifaceted exploration of one man’s foibles in life, and his wish to live up to his better nature despite his many failures to do so.
Recounting an early visit to U.S. shores, when he was still shorthanded in the music press as England’s “angry young man,” Costello said, “I was on a mission then to rid the world of alcohol — by drinking it.”
Four decades down the line, he has a different perspective on how he’s living out his life, now as the husband of jazz pianist, singer and songwriter Diana Krall and the father of three, a new point of view reflected musically in rearranged renditions of his old songs, like the reflective, acoustic-guitar-backed version of “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes.”
As if his own songs aren’t lyrically dense enough, snippets of lyrics from other songs and poetry often materialized behind him further packing ideas into various numbers, much like CNN’s constant barrage of information is testament to today’s ADHD TV audience.
Over the course of the evening, he literally moved from a whisper to a scream, making the most of the dynamic possibilities of the solo format from delicately nuanced songs on which he played lightly on an acoustic parlor guitar through rockers in which he channeled that youthful anger of auld while bashing away on one of his amplified hollow-body electric instruments.
He also moved to piano for a few songs, quipping that he’d borrowed the instrument from his wife for the evening. In one, he served up a lovely free-floating rendition of Los Lobos’ “A Matter of Time,” particularly fitting for his L.A. tour stop.
Some of the most touching moments in the show were when he spoke of his parents, who split up when he was fairly young. Even though his father — big-band singer and trumpeter Ross McManus — left his mother to raise their children largely on her own, Costello clearly has retained great love and affection for him.
He told the Ace Hotel audience he owed his career as a musician — to say nothing of their shared penchant for horn-rimmed Buddy Holly eyewear — to his father, and toward the end of the night included a filmed performance of his father effusively singing the Pete Seeger-Lee Hays folk standard “If I Had a Hammer.”
For the encore segment, Costello brought out his opening act, Georgia duo Larkin Poe — sisters Rebecca and Megan Lovell, who had turned in a riveting performance of their own, showcasing their raw and hard-charging blues-rock.
With Rebecca adding mandolin and Megan wickedly wielding electric slide guitar, they helped flesh out a handful of songs, including 1989’s mercilessly self-recriminating “Pads, Paws and Claws”; a sharp-edged “Blame It On Cain” from his 1977 debut album’ and “Down on the Bottom,” one of the ”lost” Bob Dylan songs that came to light with the New Basement Tapes project in 2014.
Larkin Poe’s second album, “Reskinned,” is due April 15, and the numbers they previewed on Saturday were packed with stripped-down emotional power. No wonder Costello keeps inviting them out on tour with him.