Very few artists have been more prolific than Elvis Costello. The one-time angry young Briton helped kick off the new wave rock era in the late '70s and has since written everything from old-style country music to a song cycle for a string quartet.
Costello has been enduringly unpredictable, as he was again last night with a two-hour show stressing his earliest and latest rock phases, but ignoring almost everything else in between.
It was an odd, but ultimately exhilarating show, if you waited around long enough for him to hit his stride. Many of the 10,500 fans at Great Woods were, unfortunately, headed to the parking lots when Costello finally cranked into memory-laden encores ("Alison," "Accidents Will Happen," "Party Girl" and "Pump It Up") that represent his best work.
It was thrilling to see him reunited with his '70s band, the Attractions (the purple-shirted Steve Nieve is still an unexcelled garage-rock, cheesy- keyboard dervish), but less than thrilling to be subjected to nine new songs that dragged down the middle of the show.
After opening with a killer, raveup blast from his punkier days ("No Action," "On the Beat," "Beyond Belief" and "Waiting for the End of the World"), Costello focused on his new album, Brutal Youth, to the point of yawning distraction. The album blows hot and cold, to the chagrin of longtime fans who thought a regrouped Attractions would pump up the volume more than they did. And the same was true of the stage versions. The Kinksy "Kinder Murder," featuring subtle wordplay, was effective. So was a rocked-up "Pony St." ("She lives on Pony St., they should scatter flowers at her feet") and the journalistic detail of "London's Brilliant Parade." But other new songs sagged, such as the overly complicated "Clown Strikes" and monotonous "Rocking Horse Road," a true momentum breaker. It was asking too much of the audience to endure so many new songs, especially from an album that hasn't done very well in the marketplace.
But Costello, still favoring a black, Mississippi riverboat gambler-style suit, had enough tricks up his sleeve to salvage the night. He looked 30 pounds lighter than his last Great Woods visit and his voice, still uniquely nasal and unmistakable after all these years, roared through such climactic classics as "Radio Radio" and "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea," which he brashly dedicated to all "pop nymphettes" in the crowd.
The Crash Test Dummies, currently hot with the satirical adult-pop hit, "Mmm Mmm Mmm," were their quirkily charming selves, but they translate best to a club, not an arena.