Elvis Costello at the Copernicus Center

Elvis Costello played solo for close to 2 1/2 hours tonight at the Copernicus Center, an old movie palace in Chicago’s Jefferson Park neighborhood. He opened with one of my favorites, “Jack of All Parades,” from his great 1986 album King of America, and later returned to that record for another outstanding selection, “Suit of Lights.” He played most of the hits that you’d expect as well as a lot of obscurities.

Costello talked about his musician father and grandfather, and sang tunes inspired by his family history. He seemed to be in a nostalgic mood. He also reminisced about playing in 2012 at Riot Fest in Chicago’s Humboldt Park: “There were people down in front taking bets on who we were.” That was a nonstop rock set, to match the festival’s punk vibe. But tonight, Costello was mostly in troubadour mode. Gazing out at the theater’s nocturnal decor, he said, “Tonight, I’m just going to sing songs about the sun and the moon and stars, seeing how I’m here in this particular place.”

At one point, he went over to sit down in a chair. “We’ve come to the part of the show where I’d like to introduce my special guest — and it’s me!”

Costello interjected bits of other songs into his own, putting the Beatles’ “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” in the middle of “New Amsterdam.” And at the end of his first encore, Costello stepped to the lip of the stage and sang a chorus of “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” without the aid of a microphone.

Costello also had a new song, “The Last Year of My Youth,” and he played it twice — an acoustic version midway through the concert followed by a more rocking electric rendition during his first encore. But when it came time for the final song of the night, he went to an old standby, the Nick Lowe song Costello made famous, “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding.”

SET LIST

Jack of All Parades / King Horse / Either Side of the Same Town / Sneaky Feelings / Watch Your Step / Veronica / Last Boat Leaving / Ascension Day / medley: New Amsterdam + You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away (Beatles cover) / Come the Meantimes / The End of the Rainbow (Richard Thompson cover) / 45 / The Last Year of My Youth / Walkin’ My Baby Back Home (by Roy Turk and Fred E. Ahlert) / Ghost Train / Man Out of Time / Watching the Detectives / Everyday I Write the Book

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SECOND ENCORE: Less Than Zero / The Last Year of My Youth / Couldn’t Call It Unexpected No. 4 / For the Stars / (What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding

Riot Fest

It didn’t seem like anyone else could fit into the space in front of the Riot Fest stage where Iggy and the Stooges were about to play on Sunday night in Humboldt Park. More and more people kept squeezing their way forward. But then, the stage lights came on, and the Stooges took their spots in the center of the stage, like they were guarding the drum kit from an onslaught. Iggy Pop bounded to the microphone stand, his hair flying, his torso as bare as always. Within seconds, the crowd somehow managed to surge forward, and the moshing commenced. It felt like everyone was swaying and bouncing in unison as the Stooges pounded out their proto-punk riffs and Iggy showed his miraculous powers to keep on rocking with rambunctious abandon well past the age when most people slow down.

Guitarist James Williamson, an old member of the Stooges who rejoined the band after guitarist Ron Asheton’s death, sounded even more confident than he had playing at the Riviera in 2010. Drummer Larry Mullins filled in for one of the other original Stooges, Scott Asheton, who has been ailing of late. Bassist Mike Watt pushed and pushed the grooves, while saxophonist Stave Mackay threw on a layer of grungy jazz. Iggy was more talkative than usual, urging audience members to bum-rush the stage, playfully taunting the video camera operators (“I’m over here!”), and asking everyone if they wanted to see… well, you can guess what he offered to show. (As far as I could see from where I was standing among the moshers, Iggy did not pull a Jim Morrison act onstage, despite his offer to do so.) Iggy seemed to be having the time of his life, feeding off the audience’s energy. I’ve seen a couple of Iggy Pop solo concerts and three Stooges shows now; they’ve all been thrilling, and this was one of the best.

I did not take photos at Riot Fest, alas, but you can see my previous pictures of Iggy Pop & the Stooges at Lollapalooza in 2007 and the Riviera in 2010. (And many Riot Fest photos are posted on other websites, including Time Out Chicago.)

Although things got a little close for comfort in the Stooges’ lawn-sized mosh pit, the overall scene at Riot Fest on Sunday was quite pleasant, with plenty of space for fans to spread out throughout Humboldt Park. Riot Fest has been going on for years, but this past weekend was the first time it became a full-fledged outdoor festival, with one night of music at the Congress Theatre, followed by two days of live rock and carnival rides in Humboldt Park. Based on my experiences in the park on Sunday — and the comments I heard from people who were there on Saturday, too — the festival was a well-run affair.

Riot Fest also boasted an impressive lineup of bands. As in past years, the main theme was punk rock, but Riot Fest defined itself broadly enough to include acts such as Built to Spill, the Jesus and Mary Chain and Elvis Costello and the Imposters. Those were the best of the groups I saw on Sunday up until the Stooges stole the show. Built to Spill’s triple-guitar epics were like sharply defined sonic sculptures. The reunited JAMC’s 1980s tunes were nicely crunchy and catchy, leaning more towards pop than shoegaze. And Costello raced at a breakneck pace through many of his early hits, climaxing with lively versions of “Pump It Up” and “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding.” At first, it seemed a bit odd that Costello was playing at Riot Fest, but he reminded everyone that he used to be a punk, too.

I was less excited by the music I heard by the Alkaline Trio, NOFX, Gogol Bordello and the Promise Ring, but that’s mostly a matter of taste. Overall, Riot Fest was a winner of a festival.

Best concerts of 2011

These are my favorite musical performances that I saw in 2011, with quotes from my original blog posts.

1. ALABAMA SHAKES (Dec. 15 at Hideout). “Wow, did Alabama Shakes live up to the hype. This was the most joyous, energetic and lively musical performance I’ve seen in 2011, and a Hideout crowded with enthusiastic fans was the perfect place to see and hear Alabama Shakes. … The crowd was shouting for more at the end — even if it meant playing some of the same songs over again.” (Original blog post and more photos.)

2. CHARLES BRADLEY (Brilliant Corners of Popular Amusements festival Sept. 17). “Some of his soul shouts gave me chills. … His feelings clearly came out of real experience as he belted the chorus, ‘Why is it so hard to make it in America?’ As the curtain closed on the stage, Bradley jumped down and hugged everyone he could.” (Original blog post and more photos.)

3. THEE OH SEES (Nov. 23 at Empty Bottle). “Somehow, Thee Oh Sees manage to make everything sound like it’s turned up and sped up a notch beyond expectations. … The fantastic, charged music of Thee Oh Sees … sent the crowd into a writhing frenzy.” (Original blog post and more photos.)

4. WILD FLAG (Oct. 9 at Empty Bottle). This was the second time I’d seen Wild Flag perform in 2011, following a July 23 set during Wicker Park Fest. That was a great set, but the four members of Wild Flag were really on fire on the second night of their fall return to Chicago, lifting their songs to another level as they jammed out with joyous abandon.

5. GODSPEED YOU! BLACK EMPEROR (March 26-27 at Metro). “The eight musicians … said barely a word to the audience over the course of the last two nights, concentrating intently on their dark, brooding and apocalyptic music. … The visual accompaniment added to the sense that these ‘songs’ (if that’s even the right word) tell stories, despite the lack of lyrics. And no singing was necessary to convey emotion, either. It was music capable of raising goosebumps.” (Original blog post and more photos.)

6. ELVIS COSTELLO & THE IMPOSTERS (May 15 at Chicago Theatre). “It was truly a ‘show,’ not just a typical concert. Reviving a gimmick he featured in a 1980s tour, Costello gave audience members a chance to come up on stage and spin the big wheel, which had about 40 songs or ‘jackpot’ slots on it … Costello put on a top hat and grabbed a cane … (and) guided Sunday’s audience through a diverse set of songs…” (Original blog post.)

7. MY BRIGHTEST DIAMOND WITH THE CHICAGO YOUTH SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA (Aug. 8 at Millennium Park). “How beautiful it was to hear the concert begin with the opening notes of ‘Dragonfly’ from My Brightest Diamond’s 2006 debut album, Bring Me the Workhorse — those swooping, sweeping violins. The concert was filled with terrific moments like that…” (Original blog post and more photos.)

8. SKULL DEFEKTS (March 31 at Hideout). “With his gray beard, (Daniel) Higgs resembled an Old Testament character or a crew member of an old whaling vessel as he commanded the stage Thursday with his unrestrained vocals. The rest of Skull Defekts — two drummers and two guitarists — never let up with their jagged punk-garage riffs.” (Original blog post and more photos.)

9. WILCO (Dec. 13 at Riviera). “This is one exceptional group of musicians, seemingly capable of playing anything. … It felt like the band could play until morning…” (Original blog post.)

10. RICHARD THOMPSON (Sept. 12 at Evanston Space). “As always, Thompson made his guitar sing, often sounding like an entire band — or two or three guitars, anyway. … The dark, quiet songs were especially haunting…” (Original blog post.)

Honorable mentions:
Bill Callahan (Brilliant Corners of Popular Amusements Sept. 16)
The Flaming Lips (July 7 at Aragon)
Le Butcherettes (Nov. 4 at Subterranean)
Neil Young and Bert Hansch (May 6 at the Chicago Theatre)
M. Ward (Dec. 4 at Schubas)
NRBQ (Aug. 27 at FitzGerald’s)
Drive-By Truckers (Feb. 26 at Vic)
Gillian Welch (July 22 at the Vic)
Tune-Yards (Pitchfork Music Festival July 15 at Union Park)
Mavis Staples (Hideout Block Party Sept. 24 at Hideout)
Screaming Females (Tomorrow Never Knows festival Jan. 14 at Lincoln Hall)
Soul Train 40th anniversary concert with the Chi-Lites, the Emotions, the Impressions, Jerry “The Iceman” Butler (Sept. 5 at Millennium Park)