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Why Elvis Costello is still the consummate singer-songwriter

SINGAPORE — For his third concert in Singapore in seven years, award-winning and critically acclaimed British singer-songwriter Elvis Costello managed to surprise and intrigue with numerous twists and turns despite the apparent constraints of a one-man show. Watching him on Sunday night, it was clear that this performance was more than an entertaining gig (which it most certainly was), that it delivered concise lessons for the observant singer-songwriter.

SINGAPORE — For his third concert in Singapore in seven years, award-winning and critically acclaimed British singer-songwriter Elvis Costello managed to surprise and intrigue with numerous twists and turns despite the apparent constraints of a one-man show. Watching him on Sunday night, it was clear that this performance was more than an entertaining gig (which it most certainly was), that it delivered concise lessons for the observant singer-songwriter.

REINVENT YOUR REPERTOIRE

For diehard Costello fans, the musician’s early material (from the 1970s and 1980s) is particularly sacrosanct. But without any backing performers, Costello needed to change things around to keep their attention for over two hours. This was accomplished by re-presenting his classic songs in new forms. Songs such as (The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes and Accidents Will Happen were re-arranged as acoustic rave-ups, Watching The Detectives and (What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding were tweaked and expressed with dark distortion, while the smooth soul classic Everyday I Write The Book was given a jagged up-tempo facelift.

KEEP THINGS VARIED

Following on from the previous point, another means by which Costello kept the audience intrigued was by changing up the instruments he used. While primarily utilising a couple of acoustic and electric guitars, he surprised many in the hall by getting onto the grand piano to deliver a couple of songs, reminding all that he is married to jazz singer-pianist Diana Krall, without any hint that the piano was not his main instrument of choice. The highlights on the ivories were certainly the impassioned versions of Deep Down Truthful Mirror, Almost Blue and Shipbuilding.

TELL MEANINGFUL AND HUMOROUS STORIES

Late last year, Costello released his memoir Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink and, perhaps, it was inevitable that Costello would incorporate stories about his past (and in particular his father, musician/bandleader Ross MacManus) into his live act. And key to a successful engagement of the audience was the injection of humour. As Costello regaled the crowd with tales of his “firsts” which included the first time he heard one of his songs on the radio (which was less than earth-shattering) and the first time he mimed playing guitar (that was grossly out of tune) in his father’s big band (an experience that prepared him for mimed variety show Top Of The Pops).

ALWAYS INTRODUCE NEW MATERIAL

If a singer-songwriter wants to remain vital and relevant, it is imperative he or she introduce new songs during concerts, to demonstrate continual growth as an artiste. Costello, of course, went one further, sharing numerous new compositions taken from the upcoming musical A Face In The Crowd, which is based on writer Budd Schulberg’s story about an obscure country singer who rises to fame, and becomes extraordinarily manipulative to preserve his success and power. On this night, Costello performed the title track Vitajex — on a ukulele, no less — and an emotional Burn The Paper Down To Ash (intended for the female lead in the musical), all of which were very well received by the rapturous audience.

A standing ovation was the barest minimum that Costello deserved at the denouement and, perhaps, when Costello next returns to our shores, he might have a band in tow as well, maybe The Imposters. Wishful thinking but, in the meantime, we will always have the first (and last) night of the Singapore Detour series.

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