Elvis Costello crammed hit after hit into his 2½-hour concert Thursday at Convention Hall in Asbury Park and there were still plenty of familiar faves he didn't have time to play.
In the late '70s and early '80s, Costello was an incredibly prolific songwriter. His first three albums, My Aim is True, This Year's Model and Armed Forces contained enough venomous new wave pub-rock for an entire career.
His most recent release, When I Was Cruel, has been hailed as a return to form, after Costello spent time recording with Burt Bacharach and other unlikely collaborators. That's something of an exaggeration. When I Was Cruel falls short of Costello's last truly great album, 1986's Blood and Chocolate, recorded with his steadfast backing band The Attractions and produced by Nick Lowe. But the new disc, with The Imposters, does find Costello playing with words and meaning in fine style.
He opened his Asbury Park show with "45," a song that examines the impact of the end of World War II, the advent of 45 rpm rock 'n' roll records, and the milestone of turning 45, which happened to Costello a few years ago (he'll be 48 in August). The transition between these images is smooth and the music, with heartbeat-steady percussion and guitar, lets the tale be told.
Another good one from the new collection is "Tart," which Costello also performed Thursday. It's another one with double-entendre lyrics and a melody that unravels the tale slowly. The songs aren't ballads, but they definitely don't rock out either. That part of his career, it's safe to say, lies in Costello's storied past.
Costello was generous in doling out old songs: "Waiting for the End of the World," "Watching the Detectives," "Last Year's Model," "This Year's Girl," "Alison," "Less Than Zero," "High Fidelity," "King Of America," "Uncomplicated," "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding," "No Action," "Radio, Radio," "Oliver's Army," "Pump It Up," "You Belong To Me," "Mystery Dance" and "I Want You."
"King of America," with Costello on acoustic guitar, and "Mystery Dance," with Costello at full speed, were among the best numbers.
Costello's at his best when he veers between styles from the lush, melodic and always relevant "Peace, Love and Understanding," for example, to "No Action," a frenetic song about romantic frustration. As an interpreter, Costello has an impressive range. He can be sarcastic; he can be tender. During "Alison," Costello let the audience take the lead. They sang "Aaaaaa-lison," and he echoed in harmony. That would've been a good closer. Instead, Costello went with "I Want You," an intense song about an obsessed ex-lover.
The song lost its power when Costello dragged it out audience members broke in with cries of "Broooce," hoping that Bruce Springsteen would pop onstage, which, frankly, would've been strange at that point in the song. Throughout the concert, Costello's voice surfed above the muddy acoustics of Convention Hall. His drummer tended to drown out the other members of the band, which is a shame, because the keyboardist also played theremin, and there's just not enough theremin in rock 'n' roll these days.