It's been a long time since Elvis Costello made his American debut at San Francisco's Old Waldorf Theater in late 1977.
In the time since, he's amassed quite a back catalogue of what many consider to be some of the best rock songs ever written, and aside from playing seven of the 13 songs that appear on his most recent album, The Delivery Man, Costello's set played out like a veritable greatest hits of a career that's well into its fourth decade.
He took the House of Blues Cleveland stage April 20 with The Imposters — ostensibly the seminal Costello band The Attractions with bassist Bruce Thomas replaced currently by Cracker's Davey Faragher — and burst into "I Hope You're Happy Now" from 1986's Blood and Chocolate.
With Costello as the sole guitarist, the solos came hard and often long, indicating that he's come a long way since Nick Lowe gave him the nickname "Little Hands of Concrete." Costello used this pseudonym for the fan-favorite King of America, recently reissued by Rhino and surprisingly unrepresented during the 24-song set.
The highlights included a rip-roaring version of "Why Don't You Love Me Like You Used To" from the cover album Almost Blue and a stretch of set-closer "The Scarlet Tide." On this song, Costello sang with a completely unplugged acoustic guitar and no microphone for those close enough to the stage to hear and sober enough to keep their mouths shut.
But for the most part, Costello's demeanor seemed a bit at odds with his usually charming, mischievous self. Some songs felt like they were played more as obligations than anything else.
And there was little chatting between songs, save for a rehearsed, say-city-name-here speech in which Costello sounded for a moment like he forgot he was in Cleveland.
The oldies were crowd pleasures, sure, but whether one prefers to hear tried-and-true hits played with less gusto than presumably less familiar tunes is for the individual to decide. Personally, I'd less like to be able to say I saw Costello play "Radio, Radio," than that I saw him in top form. Last Wednesday, it seemed he was a little bit off, though it was still an enjoyable evening.