Maybe it's a reaction to the reigning technopop sound, or an economy measure, or just a desire to do something different. For whatever reasons, solo performances have acquired a certain cachet of late among rockers more often associated with bands. John Denver is going it alone on tour this summer; former angry young man Elvis Costello and cult favorite T-Bone Burnett turned up solo Tuesday night at Arie Crown.
Getting out there on stage all alone can be a risky business, particularly when a performer's singing voice isn't particularly distinguished [a backing band can cover a multitude of vocal weaknesses], but an adventurous opportunity as well. For audiences, it's a chance to enjoy an old favorite in a new setting and see another side of a performer, for better or worse.
In Costello's case, it's doubtful that he'll gain a lot of new fans with his solo act — he's far more musically effective with a band, and his love songs come off even more bitter and self-obsessed than usual without the diverting rock accompaniment. Still, he was entertaining and affable enough, accompanying himself alternately on keyboards and acoustic and electric guitars, tossing out a few joking introductions to songs and showing no signs of the abrasive "angry young man"-style performer he once was. But while there were some lively moments — among them "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" — too many slow ballads like "Clowntime Is Over" meant that the show often dragged.
Burnett, who performed basically the same show he presented a few months ago at Tuts, is a distinctively intelligent songwriter and a less-than-gifted vocalist, though his hoarse, monochromatic voice is appealing in an offbeat way. It also serves to focus more attention on his lyrics, which tend to deal with contemporary mores and reflect a strong moralistic streak. With or without a band, he remains a provocative performer with more to say than most and a offbeat way of saying it.