Elvis Costello, who played Palmer Auditorium Thursday night, puts on two kinds of shows: horrible and stupendous. Fortunately, Thursday's was of the latter variety, even if a large part of the audience missed it.
Mixing his own superb songs with carefully selected oldies, and performing them in seamless segues, making little three- and four-song bundles out of them, he ran through no fewer than 32 numbers in the course of 90 minutes. Unfortunately, a lot of them were numbers from his new album, Imperial Bedroom (released, as one wag noted, almost simultaneously with Queen Elizabeth's fright in the night), and, since the audience didn't recognize them, they chose to ignore them completely. During sets of ballads, especially, the noise level in the auditorium was louder on the floor than it was on the stage.
Part of this must be due to radio's belated discovery of Costello's first couple of albums, certified safe by dint of having songs recorded by Linda Ronstadt and the like. The later songs, unproved, don't count, and so the audience doesn't listen, except for the legion of fans. To be fair, another part of it must be laid to the sound, easily the worst I've heard at the venue, which obliterated Pete Thomas' superb drumming (he gets more out of his tiny kit than flamboyant nonentities like Carl Palmer get out of 10 times the equipment) and fuzzed out Bruce Thomas' bass and Steve Nieve's innovative keyboard playing.
But when you could hear, it was worth listening to. Elvis has rarely been in better voice, and his singing really shone when he essayed a couple of very difficult melodies, Bobby Bland's "Two Steps From the Blues" and Joe Stampley-via-Tommy McClain's "All These Things." Expressive and sinuous, his voice toyed with them like they were the simplest things on earth, and it was a tour-de-force.
Opening the show were Austin's Fabulous Thunderbirds. I missed the start of their set, which, evidently, was when they played selections from the album they're finishing up at the moment. What came next was the usual — but far from ordinary — T-Birds excellence, marred by the bad sound, but rockin' like crazy.