Elvis Costello hasn't made a decent record since 1986. This is a widely held belief among critics and fans who've followed his career closely since 1977, the same people who stayed away from his sold-out show Thursday night at the Warfield in San Francisco. Instead, the seats were filled with misguided souls who wrest meaning out of Costello's more recent work — and there are plenty of them, judging by the response to his '90s repertoire.
This breed of Elvis fan giggles when he makes a gesture, laughs uproariously when he tosses off a funny line as if it's filled with hidden meaning (it isn't), and as if they haven't heard it a zillion times on disc. Worst of all, they sing along on cue a la Rocky Horror Picture Show, as they did to "God's Comic," a song from 1989's Spike — the very record on which a lot of old fans fell off the bandwagon but a few more got on.
These neo-converts tended to roll their eyes and sit it out during more classic numbers like "Red Shoes;" rarities like "Talking in the Dark" and "Motel Matches" and "Temptation" (the last two from my personal favorite, Get Happy!!). This was best evidenced when they missed the cue to sing along on ("I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea" from This Year's Model.
Who knew there was a whole culture of people out there just waiting to hear selections from Brutal Youth and All This Useless Beauty? This was a scary revelation to me — as if to say, "Hey, we've chosen the inferior over the superior, thank you very much."
Roughly a third of the songs Costello played with keyboardist Steve Nieve on Thursday were from his questionable Warner Brothers Records era, the rest from his more fertile '70s and '80s Columbia Records reign — a time during which he wrote very few clinkers. Yet, the crowd — comprised largely of people in their mid-30s to 40s — treat Costello, who just turned 44, as if he were our own generation's Bob Dylan or a one-man Beatles.
All this is not to say that there were not things to enjoy during Costello's performance. His voice was in extraordinarily fine shape — something which one could not say about Costello in the '80s, when he frequently suffered from vocal strain. And even in the theater's notorious black hole (stage right, back wall — don't ever sit there), he was, for the most part, clear and strong with enough dynamics to keep even the most banal selection interesting.
"Little Triggers," which made an early appearance, is one song from Costello's now ancient song catalog that most resembles the best of his later period with its calculated and dramatic arrangement and lyrical gyrations; it's the bittersweet love song (mostly bitter) in which he's specialized for 20 years, though clearly, he mastered the form long ago. It stood out among the 31 songs, as did the very recent Costello/Burt Bacharach song "God Give Me Strength," performed toward the end of the set, that was imbued with so much earnest emotion that it was difficult not to be stirred (but then, he hasn't sung it, and we haven't heard it countless times). "Shabby Doll," "Man Out of Time" and "Almost Blue" from the ignored, complicated and underrated Imperial Bedroom were suited to Nieve's over-the-top piano stylings.
When Costello merged others' songs with his own, as he did with Van Morrison's "Jackie Wilson Said" during "Radio Sweetheart," and the standard, "Fever," during "Inch by Inch," we got a taste of the lighter hearted (and lighter weight) Elvis of yore.
But lest you think I am in favor of pure nostalgia, not all of the old songs are keepers. For exactly 22 years, Costello has been performing an extended version of "Watching the Detectives" as if people want to hear it. Why, why, why?
After all this time, surprisingly, Costello's skills on guitar haven't improved much, but with Nieve on keyboards that's hardly a problem — he more than makes up for Costello's lack by keeping himself and the audience entertained with his crazy jams. A brand new song, "45," about old records and growing old was, simply put, wonderful.
But to encore with "Everyday I Write the Book?" It was pulled from the very first bona fide dreadful Costello album, Punch the Clock. Why remind us?
But he made up for it with a bile-soaked "I Want You."
Having been born into the home of a working musician, Costello's made performing his birthright by writing music for his rock band the Attractions and others, collaborating with string quartets and song-writing legends Paul McCartney and Bacharach. He takes putting on a show very seriously.
So it's ironic that in "God's Comic" he should poke fun at the excesses of musical theater giant Andrew Lloyd Webber, when his shows have become as cluttered with pat gestures, facial expressions, crowd-pleasing war horses, overly fussy melodies and undiscerning fans as a matinee of Webber's long-running Broadway musical, Cats.