The banner hanging from the balcony of Sunrise Musical Theatre last Sunday read: "Elvis in Fla.? Beyond Belief." In a way, the banner was prophetic.
Aside from being south of Tampa for the first time, Elvis Costello put on a blazing, passionate, two-hour, 30-plus song show that was nearly beyond belief. He and his band, the Attractions, left the near-capacity crowd dazed. The audience was Costello's from the opening song, "Accidents Will Happen." And they stayed with him throughout one of the most versatile performances given at Sunrise in the past year.
Costello has truly changed. He is no longer the enraged, awkward performer. His new commanding stage presence is near mesmerizing. He even looked like he was enjoying himself, flashing an occasional smile, and holding up his index finger and inquiring "One more?" after each number.
He was by no means stingy. As if his one-hour-and-20-minute show wasn't enough, he tacked on three encores totaling 40 minutes. At times, he surprised his band with some of the songs he pulled from his musical bag of licks. The man's got more musical influences than a ficus tree has roots. Though he could have played an evening of his own hits, Costello included compositions by Smokey Robinson, Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, and Webb Pierce in a show that ran from country and western to rowdy rock 'n' roll to bluesy ballads.
Costello is one of few performers who can soothe and quiet a South Florida audience that spent much of its time rocking in the aisles to tunes like "The Beat," "Pump it Up," and "Radio, Radio" by just changing the beat. When he sang soft, slow songs such as "Almost Blue," Webb Pierce's "Wondering" and the new "Ship Building" and "Imperial Bedroom," the audience stood quietly, eyes riveted to the stage, hanging onto the lyrics and, even moreso, the emotion and range of Costello's voice. The man can croon like Sinatra circa 1942.
If his present 12-week tour is any indication, Costello is now comfortable with his ability as a performer and ready to be an influential force in pop and rock music of the 80s.
His lyrics and phrasing are intelligent and thoughtful, his music stirring and his incorporation of diverse musical forms into his show points to his becoming — I hate to use the term — a superstar. That's an idea he no longer fears. Finally, Elvis Costello's act — as well as his aim — is true.
Backstage after the show, Costello is mellow. He was surprisingly affable, soft-spoken and good-natured. He obligingly signed autographs, discussed musical roots and his opinion of groups that had covered some of his songs. While band members Steve Neive, Bruce Thomas, Pete Thomas mingled with guests, Costello, clad in a dark gray suit and sporting black-framed glasses with blue lenses, remained seated on a couch. Asked about the long sets of encores, he replied: "Our first show (of the tour) was an hour and 45 minutes with no encore. We got booed because we didn't come back out, so we changed it to a one-hour show and a 45-minute encore." (The show at Sunrise was longer.) "I think encores are silly, but Americans seem to like encores. You think you're getting more or something. But it does allow us to present different material, like Webb Pierce's 'Wondering'. It enables us to change the pace of the show. We can do songs we don't get a chance to do during the show."