One of the early critical lines on Elvis Costello — the literate young man from Britain who was, he said, motivated primarily by "revenge and guilt" — was that he was the thinking punk's Bob Dylan. In a black-and-white world, he provided much gray and even some color.
That statement is no less true here and now — though maybe not for the best of reasons. A trait both Dylan and Costello share is a constant need to re-invent their material, to make it fresh for them and (with luck) the audience. Fair enough. But not everything works, as even the heartiest of Dylan fans will admit (remember Live at Budokan?) and the same is true with Costello. Last night was one of those nights. Costello favored us with a lengthy set — 110 minutes as we left during the first encore, running 150 minutes total — but it was a curiously edgeless, temperate set. Put it this way: It wasn't a black jeans and leather concert; it was a khaki-and-polo-shirt kind of concert. As in: "Didn't we rock and rage to that chestnut as Costello and the Attractions laid rubber at the Orpheum in 1978? Yes. Good thing, we can sit down to this version. It's late and we're tired." The 4,700 folks sat for most of it, and got up when a familiar lick or lyric struck them.
The good news was that Costello dug deep into the songbook to give us "Party Girl," "Kid About It," "Miracle Man," "Less Than Zero," "Oliver's Army," "This Year's Model / (I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea" and "Pump It Up" / "Slow Down" (by the Beatles), among others. The bad news that his re-workings tended to be along the lines of making everything lighter, frothier, more feel-good, as if he and his band were Jimmy Buffett or something. Keyboardist Steve Nieve even moved to accordion for a while, which upped the jauntiness level. The unintended irony in "Pump It Up" — "Pump it up! / So you can feel it!" — was palpable. The tension of yesteryear was tossed into the Harborlights breeze. People singing along, echoing Costello's once-brooding "I know" vocal in "Accidents Will Happen?" Hello?
By the first encore, "Radio Sweetheart," he was scattin' along like Van Morrison as he plucked from "Jackie Wilson Said." Message to crowd: Get happy!!
No one is begrudging Costello's right to these emotions. He ditched the possessed rebel / revenge-and-guilt motif years ago, and he's spent the past decade and a half taking chances with song, structure and band format, going so far as to attempt a voice-and-string section piece with the Brodsky Quartet. He explained last night thus: "Tonight's theme is how to turn little boys into big ones... and back again."
In May, Costello and Nieve undertook an intimate words-and-music tour which stopped at the Paradise, intending to whet the appetite for last night's larger event. That show was better than this main course, far more emotionally compelling and personal — roller coaster, if you will. Here, Costello was coasting at medium speed from the opening two, "Opportunity" and "Waiting For The End Of The World," through "Veronica" (done just with Nieve and thus lacking the rhythmic kick from Pete and Bruce Thomas) and "Oliver's Army," where the drummer and bassist thankfully rejoined. It's possible, even likely, that there were some outdoor fireworks at the end when "Green Shirt," "Watching The Detectives," "Alison" and "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding" were played.
But even if that were the case, this was a poorly paced, strangely sedate show with a semi-muddy vocal mix and below-average lighting. Nieve contributed some neat neo-classical piano clusters, but the band didn't really convey much in the way of dynamics and Costello didn't choose his material that wisely. Quantity: Yes. Quality: Not enough.
Ron Sexsmith, a Canadian singer-songwriter, opened in a trio setting, displaying a solid gift for popcraft and an endearingly nasal voice a la Marshall Crenshaw. Breezy, buoyant.