Any rock concert is a volatile, unique event that has so many elements that can go very right — or very wrong. All things considered, it's amazing so many artists manage to pull off the rousing, celebratory concerts that they do.
Elvis Costello's concert Dec 29 at the Lee Angeles Sports Arena was a near miss. It came so close to being one of those euphoric, no holds-barred nights of rock-and-roll perfection, a la Bruce Springsteen. But in the end, Costello's otherwise bright performance was weakened by atrocious sound and sluggish pacing mid-show.
Because Costello writes some of the wriest, cleverest and most expressive lyrics of anyone in rock today, it is a crime when even one syllable cannot be heard. The sound problem was so serious at his Sports Arena concert that whole chunks of lyrics were indistinguishable.
Though I strained my ears to hear, I was cheated out of most of Costello's between-songs comments, as well. I thought he was dedicating one of his songs to British fans that might have been in the audience. Someone next to me said that Elvis was actually dedicating the song to people who had seen him in concert at a past Palomino show. I think I'll take up lip-reading.
With few words intelligible enough to appreciate, the audience's concentration zeroed in on Elvis' voice itself. And that is where the man shines. Costello has an awesome way of wrapping his dry scratchy vocal instrument around words and suspending them in air with breathtaking ease. His quirky phrasing provides almost as much pleasure as the lyrics themselves.
The main surprise of Costello's set was that it ran so long — for Elvis, anyway: two-and-one-half hours, including a 20-minute intermission.
The first half began with "Lipstick Vogue," and included such favorites as "Accidents Will Happen" and "Oliver's Army." It was during Costello's string of almost a dozen consecutive country numbers that the pace started to lag a bit. Guest steel guitarist John McFee's playing, though, was impeccable and a joy to listen to. A whooped-up Johnny Cash song "Cry Cry Cry" provided a welcome burst of energy midway.
After the intermission, the concert could easily have slid downhill, but Costello wowed his audience with almost 20 more sizzling numbers. The crowd was as receptive to several brand new songs as it was to old favorites "Strict Time," "New Lace Sleeves" and "Watch Your Step." The stark white-on-black shafts of lighting for Clubland" was haunting. His Attractions band provided solid hacking that had both punch and finesse.
Elvis Costello is a most beguiling enigma He stands on stage with his gold-rimmed bow tie, conservative suit, and trademark black rimmed specs, looking likes nerdy bandleader.
Costello doesn't have the sexual charisma of Mick Jagger or the electric stage moves of Springsteen. In fact, Costello didn't stray further than 10 feet from the microphone the entire evening.
But what Costello does possess is spellbinding intensity and focus. He doesn't mug and pose, but then, he doesn't need to. One abrupt clench of his fist expresses more than many other performers communicate in entire songs. This sweat-beaded tension perfectly complements Costello's intricate, sly hook-laden music. The nerd image melts away, and Costello emerges as a rock genius.
By 11:45 p.m., the wrung-out audience was begging for mercy. Elvis provided perfect raucous release with a five-song steamroller encore that included, "I Can't Stand Up for Falling Down," "Mystery Dance," "Angels Want to Wear My Red Shoes," a poignant rendition of "Alison," and Nick Lowe's timeless musical question "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?"
A group called the Moonlighters opened the show with pop-rock that was pleasant but uninspired.
Phil Alvin, guitarist and vocalist for the Blasters, fared better. At first, the impatient audience members tried to scream him offstage, but Alvin won them over with his congenial presence and some fancy blues yodeling and strumming.