Christmas with Elvis Costello: Killing, cold, and a great catalog

Categories: Chicago Sun-Times

By MARK GUARINO | Chicago Sun-Times

Dec 22, 2010 02:36AM

Christmas with Elvis Costello evidently does not include chestnuts roasting, sleigh bells ringing or children singing while dressed as Eskimos. Monday night at the Chicago Theatre, he paid homage to the season but in a way more expected from this acerbic rocker: a song about poisoning the family clan over the Christmas ham and another that imagines winter winds as tentacles coming to get you.

The holiday concert was in part an annual promotion for WXRT-FM (93.1) and also a chance for Costello to perform alone, armed with only his charisma and songbook. Both go far.

The single acoustic guitar in Costello’s hands wasn’t the only instrument in the room. The barest of settings illuminated just how potent his voice is, either reaching a high falsetto on songs like “Either Side of the Same Town,” or commanding a hushed authority on “I Hope,” a song from “National Ransom,” a new album. On the former, as well as “A Slow Drag With Josephine,” another new song, he strolled away from the microphone and sang without amplification. To his credit, the entire theater grew quiet and his voice carried all 3,600 seats.

Songs mixed together casually. “New Amsterdam” turned into a tribute to John Lennon’s melancholia, including passages of “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” and “I’m a Loser.” “Radio Sweetheart” blended into Van Morrison’s “Jackie Wilson Said,” and “So Like Candy” became “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” by the Animals. Even “Allison,” saved for near the end, borrowed elements from musicals, “Over the Rainbow” and “Somewhere.”

The familiar became less so through versions that strayed from their originals. On “Watching the Detectives,” Costello created digitized loops from his electric guitar, resulting in layers of sound that in the end wasn’t successful but pried the audience away from expectations. More satisfying were “Beyond Belief,” its dizzying flow of words sounding particularly neurotic, and “God’s Comic,” from the days Costello used to write song portraits inked with deadly black humor.

Then there were those Christmas songs. On “St. Stephen’s Day Murders,” a song he co-wrote with Paddy Moloney of the Chieftains, Costello imagined a deadly family dinner the day after Christmas.

But the greatest contribution to the holiday canon may be “Winter Song,” a song Costello introduced from the late British folk-rock songwriter Alan Hull. The song turns the season on its head, connecting the menace of the winter gales to the personal cold front taking place on city sidewalks each day.

“Do you spare a thought for the homeless tramp who wishes he was dead / Or do you pull the bedclothes higher, dream of summertime instead?” Costello sang quietly, while sitting. With each verse, “Winter comes howling in.”

Then, just a half hour later, exiting into State St. as the first snow of an evening storm fell, it did for real.

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