Elvis Costello stepped onstage at the Jorgensen Center in Storrs Thursday evening, grabbed one of the many guitars placed around his various amplifiers and contraptions, and launched into “Clubland,” the noir-ish opening track from his 1981 album Trust. He stood between two large electric signs: “ON AIR” in big block letters and another, “Detour,” the type you’d find on the side of a highway.
The signs were prophetic, it turns out. Over the next couple of hours, Costello’s voice and guitar set various moods — jazz speakeasy, Greenwich Village coffeehouse, new-music recital hall, vaudeville stage, smoky rock club, arena-rock rage-fest — as varied as what you’d hear on a radio-theater program. A journeyman musician from a long line of professional entertainers, he spun long tales, with surreal twists. He talked about his father and grandfather, a trumpeter who “dressed a little too well to earn only trumpet money.”
On “Watching the Detectives,” he manipulated loops and effects, setting up beds of distorted chords. For a stretch, Costello sat down, cross-legged and Leon Redbone-style with a guitar on his lap, with a microphone protruding from behind him. And he occasionally sang off-mic, reminding the crowd of the size of the room, which he filled with his powerful, slightly battered voice. The few times he rasped and cracked, he seemed to relish it even more.
Early highlights included “Green Shirt,” from the 1979 Armed Forces album, set up by Costello with a repeated-note groove on his looping device; “Motel Matches,” a gem of country waltz from 1980’s Get Happy; Jerry Chestnut’s “Good Year For the Roses” (by audience request); and a rollicking “Radio Sweetheart,” which segued into Van Morrison’s “Jackie Wilson Said.” He played “Everyday I Write the Book,” a song he said was written in 10 minutes that “almost became a hit,” in a fingerpicking, British-folk style. “Ron Sexsmith taught me how to play it,” Costello said. “You know Ron Sexsmith, right?”
Costello returned for two long encores, switching to piano for “Shipbuilding” and the classical-tinged “Shot With His Own Gun” before grabbing another guitar for “I Want You,” which spiraled into loop-driven, dizzying trip through sinister moods and bad, stalkerish intentions. “Feels like we got a rock and roll gymnasium feel going on in here,” Costello quipped, as he started playing “(What’s So Funny ‘bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.” Audience members left their seats and approached the stage. It was a satisfying, wide-ranging show, full of interesting twists and turns.