Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 8, 2016)
Back before “going unplugged” was cool, Elvis Costello embarked on solo acoustic tours. While he spent most of his time with the Attractions and later iterations of various backing bands, Costello still liked to make time for these one-man shows, and that concept offers the backdrop for his “Detour” tour.
As seen on this Blu-ray, the enterprise takes us to Costello’s native Liverpool for a performance from June 2015. Across the 22 songs found on the disc, we get a mix of tracks from across Costello’s career. 1977’s debut My Aim Is True boasts “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes”, “Watching the Detectives”, “Blame It On Cain” and “Alison”, while 1979’s Armed Forces provides “Accidents Will Happen” and “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love and Understanding”.
1980’s Get Happy!! brings us “I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down”, and “Ghost Town” was a 1980 B-side that showed up on that year’s compilation Taking Liberties. We get one song apiece from Costello’s two 1981 albums: “Watch Your Step” (Trust) and “A Good Year for the Roses” (Almost Blue).
From 1983’s Punch the Clock, we find “Shipbuilding”, and 1989’s Spike gives us “Pads Paws and Claws”. Costello skips the 1990s and picks up with two tracks from 2002’s When I Was Cruel: “45” and “When I Was Cruel No. 2”. 2010’s National Ransom offers “Church Underground”, “That’s Not The Part of Him You’re Leaving” and “Jimmie Standing In the Rain”.
In 2014, Costello participated in Lost on the River, a project that added music to unused Bob Dylan lyrics. This gives us the Dylan/Costello-penned “Down on the Bottom” and “Golden Tom – Silver Judas”. Finally, Detour includes covers of “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home”, “If I Had a Hammer” and “Side By Side”; these are songs Costello never released as studio recordings.
I first saw Costello live in 1983 with the Attractions, but my second show took place the following spring and involved a solo performance. I believe this was Costello’s first acoustic one-man show, and it gave us a simpler format than what we’d get in years to come, as it really did focus solely on Elvis and his guitar or piano.
When I saw Costello solo again in 1989, he’d spiced matters up a bit. His 1986 mini-tour introduced a gimmick he’d milk for years to come, the “Spectacular Spinning Songbook”. This used a wheel on which song titles appeared; audience members would hop on stage to give it a whirl and Elvis would play the result.
Costello brought the Songbook along for that 1989 solo tour, and it added a terrific level of fun to the show. Not that I disliked the 1984 solo concert, but I admit that one-man acoustic performances are a tough sell for me, so the addition of the Songbook’s goofiness brought spark to the event.
Detour lacks the Songbook or any similar gimmicks, but that doesn’t make it a stark visual presentation. Costello resides on a set meant to simulate a 1960s living room – with a huge TV screen in the back – so matters open up more than one might expect.
I don’t think the set adds much to the performance, though. The TV offers the occasional interesting image, but it doesn’t get the attention it needs to do much for the show. The rest of the set seems semi-neglected and unimportant as well.
This leaves the focus firmly on Costello – well, except for a handful of songs that involve the duo Larkin Poe. The American Lovell sisters who make up that band play on “Pads Paws and Claws”, “That’s Not the Part of Him You’re Leaving”, “Down on the Bottom”, “Blame It On Cain”, “A Good Year for the Roses”, “Peace Love and Understanding” and “Golden Tom”.
I’m glad the Lovells appear, as Detour needs their injection of energy. At his best, Costello can be a very good live performer, but Detour seems less than stellar.
Musically, the concert works reasonably well. As noted, I’m not a big fan of solo acoustic shows, but Elvis handles himself more than adequately in that regard. He has plenty of experience with the format, and that gives him confidence.
I’d like more audience engagement, though. Sure, Costello tells a decent mix of stories, but these seem more sporadic than I remember in the past, and most aren’t all that interesting. Elvis can spin a good yarn, and much of the appeal from prior solo shows came from his anecdotes. The tales in Detour just don’t connect in an especially memorable way.
In terms of direction, Detour offers a capable reproduction of the concert. Virtually all the action concentrates on the stage, which is fine with me, as I can live without the usual gratuitous crowd shots. The nature of the performance makes this a subdued visual product, and again, that’s logical; God knows a slew of quick edits would be ridiculous for this kind of show.
I skipped the last Costello solo show when he hit town back in 2014, and Detour doesn’t make me regret that decision. As a fan of more than 30 years, I enjoyed Detour to a moderate degree but I don’t think it represents Elvis at his best.