Before Elvis Costello's Saturday night show at the Bronco Bowl, opening act Phantom Planet engaged in a classic bit of concert silliness. During the band's last song, the bass player and the lead singer each grabbed a pair of drumsticks and teamed up with the drummer to make a little percussive trio.
It was goofy and fun, but it was a gimmick, a bit of showmanship to punch across musicianship that really didn't need the help. And for a long time, this gimmickry stood in contrast to Costello's 2½-hour show. Costello's concerts are all about the songs, and he has a lot of them, having released more than 20 albums during the past 25 years.
Costello's shows rely much more on album tracks than radio hits, and the set list can hit fans any number of ways. For me, a highlight was when he played two personal faves — "High Fidelity" and "Man Out of Time," both from early '80s albums — back to back. Surprises such as this have more resonance than numbers such as "Watching the Detectives," "Pump It Up" and "Radio, Radio," all of which received commercial-radio airplay before commercial radio turned its back on Costello.
Costello laid into all these songs with as much passion as ever, sometimes even more. It's saying something when this 48-year-old artist and his band can make a song like "Lipstick Vogue" sound even more punky than it did in 1978. Yet it's a little disconcerting how much Costello still relies on his 1977-82 glory days for his concert material.
He did perform many songs from his latest studio album, When I Was Cruel, but he included precious few from the 1982-96 years. His albums were more erratic then, but there are more hidden gems from that time than "Indoor Fireworks," "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror" and "Rocking Horse Road," all of which he played Saturday night.
And something curiously oxymoronic has happened to Costello's concerts: They've become predictably surprising. You know, for instance, that he'll monkey with the arrangements of several songs, that he'll perform some off-the-wall covers (for instance, "Alison" bleeding into Jim Reeves' "He'll Have to Go" bleeding into Elvis Presley's "Suspicious Minds"), that he'll tease you with several encores.
It's doubtful that anyone thought that Saturday night's show was over when Costello left the stage after his first encore song; he hadn't even introduced the band (keyboardist Steve Nieve, drummer Pete Thomas — having a particularly forceful night — and bassist Davey Faragher) or performed many of his best-known songs. And at first, the long encore was a pleasure, featuring many great moments (such as a lengthy, moody "When I Was Cruel" morphing into "My Funny Valentine"). But it grew increasingly self-indulgent, and when Costello took forever on a song called "I Want You," the audience's attention faltered for the first time during the show.
It may seem like curmudgeonly nitpicking to find fault with a very good show because it wasn't a great one, but Costello's earlier shows have set high standards, and living up to those standards shouldn't be enough for an artist like Costello. Any musician can give the fans what they want, and Costello has always managed to give them more. But he needs to find the next level, to make the surprises even more jaw-dropping. Until then, the surprises are gimmicks — entertaining gimmicks to be sure, but gimmicks nonetheless.