MANSFIELD — Ray Davies of the Kinks once mused, "The Kinks are probably the only band in the world where you can leave the show and be over the moon with enjoyment and still walk away disappointed."
Well, maybe, not the only band in the world. Elvis Costello and his touring band the Rude 5 — a sextet, incongruously enough — have to fit in there somewhere. Not bitterly disappointed, mind you, and partially over the moon. After his colleges-only solo tour of this spring, it's wonderful to find Costello playing to the general public and on stage with a flexible band, rocking out, taking liberties with arrangements, voice and emphasis.
The disappointment, really, comes down to the highly subjective case of song selection, or of omission. And, yes, despite the marvelous pummeling he gave "Pump It Up," the harder edge he gave "Alison" and the comic, song-closing twist he gave "Mystery Dance," it would have been more satisfying to hear other gems from that early, ultra-intense era. Memories of those days — and those shows when Costello was still the angry young man and not the beloved entertainer — still resonate.
Other than selection, the only problem at sold-out Great Woods last night was a rather clunky start, further addled by sound problems. "Let Him Dangle," for instance, lost its ferocity and tension in a tangle of horns, a too-cluttered arrangement. The standard opener, "Accidents Will Happen" (with its so-perfect "Oh, I just don't know where to begin..." first line) didn't soar as it should have.
But things picked up about a third of the way in, just before Costello took a solo spot, and hit high gear on the wrenching "American Without Tears," which Costello started solo and ended with full band. It had sweep, sadness and a quiet poignancy. Many of Costello's best songs contain those elements: think of "Veronica," the lilting pop song played as an encore. It's about the most striking rock 'n' roll reflection on aging and remembrance — buoyant, but wistful.
Another Ray Davies comparison: Where Costello once declined encores and played songs as a series of machine-gun bursts, he now is deep into pacing and, well, showmanship. (A screen behind him bore the tragedy and comedy masks, later flanked by photos of Costello's face transformed into almost grotesque versions of the masks.) He shares Davies' music-hall sensibilities and his leftist, underdog politics. In "God's Comic," Costello, as God (hey, why aim low?), savaged TV evangelists, divorce lawyers, film colorizers and Exxon's CEO — all with a tart, quick wit. He worked a line from the Monkees' "I'm a Believer" into "God's Comic," Van Morrison's "Jackie Wilson Said" into "Radio Sweetheart," and the Beatles' "Day Tripper" into "I Hope You're Happy Now." (Costello, of course, has been collaborating with Paul McCartney; last night he played one unreleased song they wrote together. Not a standout.)
Costello's band contains but one member of his longtime backing group, the Attractions, with whom he's apparently at odds. That's drummer Pete Thomas, who did the job as always. His other mates, including bassist Jerry Scheff from the King of America sessions, were a dexterous bunch, playing instruments such as horns, mandolins, timpani, accordion, guitar, bass and keyboards. This gave Costello the tools with which to paint pictures rich in texture and contrast. Put more bluntly, they banged the daylights out of the raging, delightfully unsubtle "I Hope You're Happy Now" and managed the improbable fusion of a walking bass line, a jazzy dissonant breakdown and a heavy-metal blitz in "Watching the Detectives." Truth be told, the rearrangement didn't further the song's creepy-crawly thrust — it's always been a song Costello's tinkered with — but it was fun anticipating the sonic swerves.
Same, on the vocal front, for the solo segment. Costello is a singing-in-the-shower type who does it in public; he loves to emote and "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" was a standout, kicked off with the opening riff from the Who's "Pinball Wizard."
All in all, Costello's marathon last night — coming in at nearly 2½ hours — was well worth the trek. Sure, it could have been complete bliss, but near-bliss is nothing to scoff at.