A friend said it perfectly upon leaving the concert in Atlanta last week: "I saw some pretty good music, but I was expecting Elvis Costello."
Expectations can run pretty high with Costello. An angry young man when he burst on the scene in 1977, Costello emerged as one of the most distinctive and influential performers of new wave music. The Briton delivered his densely-layered wordplays with a clipped bitterness, which became somewhat of a trademark of the genre.
His first album alone, My Aim is True, produced several classics — including "Watching the Detectives," "Alison" (covered by Linda Ronstadt) and "Less Than Zero" — and gave young garage bands plenty of cool new copy material.
Abrasive yet melodic, Costello's songs were always fascinating and intelligent, and his singing was often amazingly passionate.
In his early years, his stage shows were noteworthy for his moodiness and dark drinking spells. But that period was supposed to have passed.
Earlier this year, his solo performance at Duke University was full of spunk, adventure and variety — his song choices spanning his entire recording career.
The audience at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta last Thursday night was not nearly so lucky. Costello seemed to forget that many of his best compositions are on his first three albums. He concentrated on the King of America album, granted a beauty, but too restrained and even-toned for a 4,300-seat auditorium.
He threw in a few upbeat country and western tunes from Almost Blue, but the show never really got rolling.
Since he had a full band behind him, people left scratching their heads as to why he didn't rock out or mix things up more. He seemed determined to be contrary to the crowd's desires.
Hoping to hear one of his celebrated rockers, the audience begged him back for encores, but he responded by playing even more somber tunes and did little to acknowledge his listeners.
Costello was in fine voice. But his detached spirit seemed to confine the range of his competent support musicians.
In an intimate club, perhaps with less instrumentation, that show would have worked wonderfully. But in a concert hall, it was like watching a powerful freight train that never could quite pull out of the station. Frustrating.
No negative words, however, are in order for opening act Nick Lowe, except that his solo set was too short. Costello's long-time friend and producer, Lowe performed just a half-hour's worth of his richly simple songs, before playing rhythm guitar in Costello's band.