It turned out to be as much an exercise in endurance as it was a concert: nearly three hours of music, more than 45 songs hammered out in rapid succession. But none of the fans crowded into this normally dignified venue Jan. 3 seemed to even notice the length of the marathon show that began at 8 p.m. with opener Dave Olney and the X-Rays and finished up close to midnight with double Costello encores.
It's no secret that playing the Grand Ole Opry House has long been a dream of the British New Waver. His passion for Nashville was carried out finally when he came here last year to cut his all-country album, Almost Blue. Maybe it was this inherent respect for things Nashville that made Costello appear more personally involved with the music onstage than usual for this last concert on a limited three-city U.S. tour.
He let his customary impassivity and aloofness drop away, at times half-smiling and talking to the audience.
As usual, Costello's sound was somewhat muddied and not for the faint of ear, a shame at times since his lyrics definitely deserve the hearing. But during the country portion of the program (in which he brought out Doobies guitarist John McFee to play pedal steel), Costello's voice took on a strangely low, huskier vibrato, a haunting plaintiveness that overrode his surface posture of ennui and hushed the crowd.
And maybe it was, after all, the inspiration of performing live on the Opry stage that seemed to unkindle a special spark in the Attractions. With Costello centerstage, bent over the mike in his characteristic loose-jointed, knock-kneed stance, the band whipped its way through material collected from Get Happy, Armed Forces, This Year's Model, Trust, and of course, Almost Blue.
Costello's music is a polymorphous excursion into '50s-'60s rock, '40s-styled ballads, '70s New Wave and classic country. The fans reacted strongest, predictably, to high-energy numbers like "Oliver's Army," "Lipstick Vogue," "Accidents Will Happen," "Radio Radio," and "Temptation," where the Attractions had a clear shot at shining instrumentally. Costello generously threw in several new tunes yet unrecorded, and the energy built nicely through the second half of the concert when there was markedly more interplay among the musicians.
The main flaw of the concert, unfortunately, turned out to be its pacing. The first set dragged, at times interminably, due chiefly to Costello's decision to perform all 10 of his country songs in one long string. (This material also seemed to be played somewhat more lethargically in tempo than on the album.) In retrospect, the pacing would probably have worked better had Costello spread out the country numbers between the rocker, or at least thrown some of the country things over into the second half of the show.
But overall, it was an evening where a headliner gave the crowd far more than its money's worth in talent and performance, and the fans, cheering and dancing, lapped it all up and cried for more.