Elvis Costello is a prolific recording artist. He has released nine albums over the last six years, and he, like David Bowie, has worked ably in many different pop styles. Consequently, no matter what songs he chooses to perform during a concert, someone is bound to say Costello overlooked his or her favorite(s).
Last night at the Allentown Fairgrounds, Costello and his band, The Attractions, along with an exuberant four-piece brass section called the T.K.O. Horns, opened their North American tour with a generous 23-song set, plus a couple of encores for a small but appreciative crowd of 1,350. Many of the songs Costello performed came (not surprisingly) from Punch The Clock, his uneven new Columbia LP, and (unfortunately) 1982's Imperial Bedroom, much praised but to these ears, quite unlistenable. So to these ears, last night's show was uneven.
Costello's latest incarnation is as a soul man, a role he obviously relishes. He closed the show with a powerful and moving "Clowntime Is Over," with some in the audience egging him on with calls of "Get down!" When it came to doing his hits, the results were mixed. When he could work in the horns, as on "Watching the Detectives" (they played cheesy detective show riffs), Costello was focused. But when they were absent, as on "Oliver's Army," a pop-rocker from his Armed Forces LP, Costello seemed disinterested and his reading of the song was perfunctory. Crowd pleasers like "Alison" and "Pump It Up" were saved for the encores.
But there was plenty to like about the show, starting with Costello himself. Never known as an engaging performer or particularly fond of America, Costello appeared almost buoyant as he took the stage. Dressed in a black suit and red shirt and shoes, he shouted a friendly "Good evening!" before launching into the first song, "Let Them All Talk." His vocal work was top-drawer all night.
Then there was the T.K.O. Horns, who played on the first half-dozen songs and the last half-dozen. On Punch The Clock, the quartet's neo-soul playing sometimes sounds forced. In concert, their playing was tough, adding fire to the material and often challenging The Attractions to keep up with them. Only occasionally, as on "Secondary Modern," were they a little overpowering.
And because Costello was on a soul binge, he played a fair amount of his excellent Stax/Motown-influenced Get Happy!! LP.
Opening the show was Aztec Camera, four fresh-faced young Scots whose brand of pop sometimes has a danceable bottom, but for the most part was just faceless.