Los Angeles Times, May 30, 2002

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Classics and newer tunes, a
full-circle mix by Elvis Costello


Richard Cromelin

Costello, embracing rock again, battles sound woes in a charming blend of recent songs and favorites.

"You must all be singing majors," Elvis Costello said to his audience Tuesday at UCLA's Ackerman Grand Ballroom, gently teasing the crowd after luring it into a sing-along on one of his new songs, "Tart."

This geniality was a far cry from whatever was eating Costello that night in the late '70s when he stormed off the stage of the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium and ended the show after a few songs (something about the audience not getting the point). But the evening's overall energy might not have matched the night in 1978 at the Hollywood High School Auditorium when his concert was recorded for a promotional disc.

Still, Ackerman will be filed with those memorable events because it was billed as Costello's first dance hall show in 20 years. (It was a late addition to the performer's term as UCLA's "artist in residence," a position that has now been extended into next season after his spotty service – in part due to recording a new album – over the past year.) And it did have its character and its charms.

The latter flowed from the veteran singer-songwriter's recent return to raw rock 'n' roll after several years of slumming with old-line pop icons (Tony Bennett, Burt Bacharach), classical collaborators (mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, the Brodsky Quartet) and various genres (jazz with the Charles Mingus Orchestra, a still-pending ballet score).

The new album, When I Was Cruel, has been embraced as the 47-year-old Englishman's strongest work since his late-'70s heyday, and it does seem like a conscious effort to shed all subsequent influences and home in on the mix of verbal alacrity, pop catchiness and rock intensity that once made Costello the hottest thing around.

Indeed, such Cruel songs as "45," "15 Petals," "Tear Off Your Own Head (It's a Doll Revolution)" and "Dust" slid in easily among the classics Tuesday. In fact, they shaped and dominated the show, allowing the singer-guitarist to evoke the golden era without embalming the show in nostalgia. It helped that he was accompanied by a three-piece band, the Imposters, that's essentially his old Attractions, with a different bassist, Davey Farragher, joining drummer Pete Thomas and keyboardist Steve Nieve.

Costello didn't seem to tailor the set to the idea of a dance hall. He devoted long stretches to slow and mid-tempo material that emphasized his soulful touch and emotional range. The new album's vampy title song segued perfectly into "Clowntime Is Over," a balladic one-two punch that risked losing the crowd's attention but ended up as a spellbinding epic.

In the new songs, Costello also returns to his signature themes, depicting personal relationships and social-political arrangements as tense battlegrounds teeming with deceivers and manipulators. These scenarios, in such songs as "Dust" and "Alibi," inspired especially vehement vocals from one of rock's most distinctive singers.

The show's sonic character was more a mixed bag, thanks to its placement in the giant shoebox of the student union ballroom. The sound sometimes clumped together like a ball of mud, then seemed to scatter in different directions. Frequencies bounced off the flat, squared surfaces, and there was always the disconcerting sensation that an additional drummer sat tapping away at the back of the room. The Kodak Theatre, where Costello plays tonight, has taken some heat for its sound, but there's nothing like Ackerman.

But it also sounded exhilarating and real, Costello's vocals were surprisingly audible, and the old-fashioned, un-slick feel (there weren't even any spotlights that could follow him when he stalked around the stage) suited the twang and snarl of the distorted attack.

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Los Angeles Times, May 30, 2002


Richard Cromelin reviews Elvis Costello & The Imposters, Tuesday, May 28, 2002, Ackerman Grand Ballroom, UCLA, Los Angeles, CA..

Images

2002-05-30 Los Angeles Times photo 01 rg.jpg
Photo by Robert Gauthier.

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