Talk about climbing out on a limb.
In Sunday's Calendar, I nominated Elvis Costello's concert Tuesday night at the Universal Amphitheatre as the most promising show of the (extended) summer at our four local amphitheaters.
For much of the first hour of Tuesday's concert, I thought that Costello was sawing off the limb.
The idea behind the concert certainly seemed intriguing: our first chance to see the most compelling songwriter of rock's post-punk era in a solo, acoustic setting.
One of the biggest misconceptions about rock 'n' roll is that it consists primarily of energy and volume. The truth is that rock's most endearing qualities are its attitude and heart. And, Costello has scored high in both areas.
As a writer, he has demonstrated enormous range and insight over the last seven years. The Englishman has employed humor, anger and tenderness in exploring virtue and corruption in both personal relationships and in our social institutions.
At the same time, his maverick attitude has kept him from settling into a single tone or style. He has moved from pure country to spirited R&B to such sophisticated pop-rock that he has been labeled — much to his amusement — a contemporary Cole Porter. And he's shunned many customary showbiz rituals. He didn't give interviews for years and didn't allow photographers at any dates on this tour.
Given his multidimensional talent, you'd think Costello would be able to move quite easily to an acoustic setting.
And parts of the first hour came off marvelously as Costello's intense vocals and biting phrasing supplied some of the drama and force normally provided by his backing band, the Attractions. He also kept things fresh by slipping in some new compositions and a few songs by other artists.
As the hour wore on, however, there were stretches — especially during the ballads — when things dragged. And some of the acoustic arrangements of the upbeat songs simply sagged alongside the full-bodied rock treatments we're used to hearing. On the provocative "Green Shirt," the audience even tried to supply the signature drum beat by clapping along.
When Costello left the stage at the end of the regular set, you almost wished that he would surprise us by bringing back the Attractions for the encore. In other words, the concert could have used some more of those old-fashioned rock traits: energy and volume.
The revelation was the encore — or, more appropriately, the nearly hourlong series of encores. Costello proved a shrewd showman, bringing out singer-songwriters T-Bone Burnett and John Hiatt for duets, and weaving his most appealing early songs and some enticing new ones into masterful minisets, each one topping the last.
Even if occasional slow spots kept this performance short of the triumph of his earlier shows, it remained a memorable night for his fans, and one that taught you never to bet against this extraordinary pop-rock talent.
Costello seemed more comfortable and relaxed on stage Tuesday night than in past appearances here. Both in explanations of specific songs and in general demeanor, he revealed more of himself than usual. During the first hour, especially, he joked around, giving fake introductions to songs ("Now, here's a Billy Joel number.") and poked fun at rock journalism by reading humorous magazine "quotes" that he attributed to members of his Attractions band.
Then, again, lightness may have been the only way Costello could reasonably deal with the adoration being shown him on this tour. Fans at pop concerts often shout greetings between songs, but these devotes yelled encouragement during the songs. Whenever Costello went into a ballad, invariably there were cries of "Elvis is the greatest" or "We love you Elvis." They were often answered by "Shut up!" from other fans.
Though he accompanied himself mostly on guitar, Costello also turned to piano and electric piano on a few of the nearly three dozen songs. The cover songs ranged from an early Dusty Springfield recording (the torch-like "Losing You") to a couple of George Jones hits (the good-natured "Ragged but Right" and the bittersweet "She Thinks I Still Care)."
The most significant cover tune, however, the one he used to open the first encore: Bob Dylan's countrified "I Threw It All Away," a late-'60s song that deals with the loss of idealism and integrity.
The song's placement at the beginning of the closing hour of the show was noteworthy because so many of Costello's songs deal with the same subject. In addition, Costello's two most moving performances Tuesday were the type of social-protest numbers that played such a strong part in Dylan's early career.
The first, "Shipbuilding," is an eloquent, disheartened commentary on British involvement in the Falklands war and the irony involved in the way war pumps life into a country's economy while taking life from its citizens. His heartfelt. show-stopping rendition seemed surely to be the evening's closing number.
But Costello returned for another series of songs that ended on an even more emotional note with a new song titled "Peace in Our Time." It's a soft, prayerlike reflection on British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's pre-World War II assurances about a peaceful world. It ends up with a look at President Reagan and the invasion of Grenada.
Sample line: "They're lighting a bonfire upon every hilltop in the land / Just another tiny island invaded when he's got the whole world in his hands."
Responding immediately to the song, the audience gave Costello a standing ovation — and they weren't overdoing it this time. Tuesday's concert may well rank as the top summer amphitheater show after all.
T-Bone Burnett, dressed smartly in a tuxedo, opened the concert with a generally winning acoustic set that consisted of charming cover songs (including Roger Miller's "King of the Road") as well as Burnett's own tunes, the best of which dealt with the lessons of love — songs that defined the term in a spiritual, not simply romantic way. His lyrics are still heavyhanded at times, but even the sometimes clumsy numbers from his Proof Through the Night album seemed more affecting when removed from the suffocating bombast of the LP's arrangements.