The last time Elvis Costello played in Eugene, he was feeling a bit under the weather. He apologized for his sub-par performance — which, in Costello-land means anything just short of perfection — and promised he would make up for it the next time he came to town.
He didn't forget, and he didn't disappoint.
On Wednesday night, Costello paid his penance for whatever it was that had been bothering him about that performance three years ago at the Hult Center.
By the second song, "Watching the Detectives," he was already sweat-soaked, and he proceeded to perspire his way through 2½ hours of music that included new stuff ("45"), old stuff ("Radio Radio") and obscure stuff ("Waiting for the End of the World").
He showed great range as he spun from one song into the next and displayed a sorcerer's control of the room, repeatedly raising the energy level to a crashing crescendo and then gently bringing it back down.
As someone who has always valued Costello's comment about music writers ("Writing about music is like dancing about architecture — it's a really stupid thing to want to do"), I felt a bit sheepish about covering one of his concerts. But this one was too good to pass up: one of the world's premiere artists at the cozy McDonald Theatre.
How this show didn't sell out weeks ago will go down as one of the great mysteries of Eugene.
In the end, the fans did show up, and the theater swelled by the time Costello emerged wearing his usual black sport coat and orange lenses. His band, the Imposters, included Steve Nieve on keyboards and Pete Thomas on drums (both members of his original band, the Attractions) and new guy, bassist Davey Faragher from the band Cracker.
Rhino Records recently began rereleasing all of Costello's albums, which may have informed his heavy-on-the-old-stuff set. He shuffled his classic catalog with his new one, moving effortlessly from "Red Shoes" (1978) to "Spooky Girlfriend" (2002) and switching from "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror" (1989) to "Tart" (2002).
Costello got up for all of his material and, remarkably, he was able to make 24-year-old hits such as "Pump It Up" sound shiny and new.
But he seemed slightly more animated by some of the less-worn songs off his latest album, When I Was Cruel. He was at his most glowing when trying the new songs on for size, striking poses, twitching to the music and smiling his gap-toothed smile.
During "Tart," he swayed with the tune, which probed all the various meanings of the word and brought the audience in for a sing-along.
Between songs, Costello offered his usual witty banter and word play, but unfortunately, much of what he said and what he sang was lost in the sound mix.
I can't speak for the entire theater, but from my seat in the balcony the sound was at times hard to decipher. Things improved as the night wore on, and were there some other performer on stage for whom lyrics weren't so important, it might have been easier to overlook the muddiness. But the etymologist in me felt a bit cheated for not getting to fully taste the icing of an Elvis Costello performance.
Because of the sound issues, some of the most enjoyable moments of Costello's rockin' show were the quieter ones. During more spare songs, such as the slow, angular "I Want You," Costello made every note count and every word matter with his methodical guitar playing and carefully enunciated singing.
Of the other musicians on stage, Nieve was Costello's most worthy collaborator. His organ playing was great, and he navigated the keys like the "professor" that Costello accused him of being.
When Nieve wasn't driving the songs along, he was adding just the right flourishes. Costello's other longtime mate, Thomas, added the perfect punch to songs such as "Tear Off Your Own Head," while Faragher was nearly invisible in a rear corner of the stage.
Costello switched guitars repeatedly throughout the night, a move that can seem pretentious when performed by less skilled musicians, but one that seemed only natural for Costello, who played with the intensity of a surgeon.
Costello didn't just play his songs though. He acted them out, convincingly and unobtrusively.
During "I Want You," he even appeared to have made himself angry, bleeding jealous rage as he screamed the line, "Did you call his name out?"
Phantom Planet opened the show with a brief set of short, potent indie rock songs that would have sounded right at home alongside the Vines, the Hives or any of the other stripped-down garage rock bands currently in vogue.
Movie star Jason Schwartzman (Rushmore, Slackers), the band's celebrity drummer, showed up in a camouflage shirt, played furiously, raised his arms in the air and screamed along to the music.
Lead singer, guitarist and former Gap model Alex Greenwald bellowed the words to songs including "California" the group's catchy hit from the film Orange County.