The only flame in town

Seattle to Elvis: We love you.

ESTIMATING—CONSERVATIVELY—that Elvis Costello has played “Almost Blue” an average of 20 times a year since it was first released in 1982, that’d be 340 renditions to date. At this point, a certain roteness to his delivery would be understandable. His longtime fans could certainly experience enough joy from sheer nostalgia to make a stirring performance beside the point.

Elvis Costello

Paramount, Wednesday, May 26

All the more reason to rave about Costello’s recent Seattle show (the first date of his current US tour), where he delivered “Almost Blue”—and other early chestnuts like “Alison” and “Accidents Will Happen,” as well as such mid-’80s highlights as “Indoor Fireworks” and “I Want You”—with every ounce of emotional intensity intact.

It helped that former Attractions member Steve Nieve was around to provide his usual empathetic keyboard backing. The two even previewed a new song they’d written together, an angular, amelodic number called “You Lie Sweetly.”

Yet some credit for Costello’s inspired performance has to go to the affectionate audience. He got a standing ovation just for walking on stage, a welcome that would urge any entertainer to maximum effort. Both literally and figuratively, he could do no wrong. Even his collaborations with Burt Bacharach from Painted from Memory—not the best material penned by either—gained power in stripped-down arrangements.

Given the 13-year period when Costello was MIA here—from the release in 1981 of Trust until the Attractions’ reunion for Brutal Youth—the crowd’s response makes sense; though he’s played Seattle three times since ’94, seeing the man in person is still a new experience for his local fans.

So scalpers could offer tickets for $150 each while Costello played fast and loose with his creations: “Pads, Paws, and Claws” faded off into “Baby, Please Don’t Go,” “Inch by Inch” morphed into the Cooley/Davenport standard “Fever,” and “Radio Sweetheart”—with the audience doo-doo-doo-dooing along—into Van Morrison’s “Jackie Wilson Said.” Costello broke up “God’s Comic” with a practiced rant that revealed he’s still harboring some early-’80s grudges; as examples of pop music’s sad state, he quoted from Duran Duran’s “Rio” and Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” (reckoning that “Elvis Presley would never sing the phrase ‘pain in the ass'”) as well as the Verve’s “The Drugs Don’t Work” (a reference that was lost on a majority of the 30-and-above crowd).

These swipes were good-natured in a smug kind of way. Most of the time, though, Costello exemplified the gracefully aging rocker. Having long ago made peace with his angry-young-man beginnings, he’s now free to joke about them: Singing “Radio Sweetheart,” he mentioned that it was the first song he ever recorded, but not the first song he ever wrote: “The first song I ever wrote was when I was 13,” he confided. “It was called ‘Winter.'” He paused, arching an eyebrow. “It was in the key of E minor.”

During the first encore, Costello finally replaced his acoustic guitar with an electric one, and he and Nieve deconstructed “Watching the Detectives”—now nearly a quarter-century old—with classical piano filigree and a syncopation of the song’s reggae-flavored guitar line. Back for a third and final encore, Costello finished the evening singing, a cappella and unamplified, at the foot of the stage. For him and his Seattle fans, absence obviously does make the heart grow fonder.