Elvis Costello is playing a month of solo dates all across this great land of ours, and he pulled into Rochester on Good Friday to deliver stripped down versions of some of his big hits and quite a few lesser known Costello gems.
Costello has never been known as a great instrumentalist. The Attractions, his back-up band, musically carry both Costello's albums and his live shows. Don't expect to hear anyone rave about Elvis's guitar solos; they're virtually non-existent.
What Costello lacks in instrumental prowess, however, is compensated for by his invincible vocals. Costello possesses one of the truly great voices in pop today. Granted, it's not a smooth, silky voice with character, capable of effectively covering a wide range of emotions. In this day when affected vocal coolness is all the rage, Costello stands out with his truly unique singing.
It was that singing that was being showcased on Friday evening. Costello minimally accompanied himself on the acoustic and electric guitars, piano, and organ. Essentially, he played chords, although an occasional note or two did creep into the performance. The musical accompaniment was simple, sometimes to Costello's disfavor. For the vocal maneuvering Costello was attempting, a more solid base was needed. While he tried to play with the melodies, there was nothing to hold the song in place.
Some of the material, then, didn't come off quite as well as it should have. A few songs, such as "Stranger in the House" fell through because Costello tried to fool around with them too much. The tempos were on the slow side throughout much of the show. For those unfamiliar with the songs, the slowness might have become tedious. Only "Everyday I Write the Book" and "Red Shoes" were played faster than their recorded counterparts.
It was the song selection that put the evening in the plus column. I've seen Costello three times previous to this; and of the thirty songs he played in Rochester, nineteen I had never seen him play. The song list was astounding: "Accidents Will Happen," "Man Called Uncle," "Mouth Almighty," "New Amsterdam," "Sweet Dreams," "Girls Talk," "Motel Matches," "Riot Act," "Alison," "How Much I Lied."
Costello also previewed five new songs from his upcoming LP (tentatively titled Goodbye, Mr. Reagan): "The Only Flame in Town," "Worthless Things," "Dancing with Laughing Faces," "The Whole Truth," and his new single, "Peace in Our Time." Costello threw in seven cover songs as well.
It takes a considerable amount of nerve and a large dose of ego to launch a solo tour, and Costello looked quite comfortable on stage. He joked with the audience, introducing "Motel Matches" as a song written by Billy Joel. He thanked the school for supplying the piano. He even complimented RIT's student-run radio station. What a nice guy.
T-Bone Burnett opened the show and he, too, was solo. Burnett, however, lacked Costello's charisma, and his set didn't come off quite as well. When Burnett intoned "Let's Rock" after the chorus of "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," there was nothing to rock. Burnett badly needed a back-up band. He joined Costello for Elvis' second encore, and the two were introduced as the "Calhoun Brothers from Stoneybrook, New York." They banged their way through a song called "Ragged But Right." And they were grinning.