No one seemed to know quite what to expect Wednesday night at the Beverly Theatre, which was exactly the way headliner Elvis Costello wanted it.
Since arriving here in 1977 as the leader of the literate wing of England's post-punk revolution, Costello has demonstrated a Dylan-like obsession with avoiding rock's many conventions. He sometimes does arbitrary things (like banning photographers from his concerts on this tour). But mostly he does meaningful things designed to help keep his art fresh and invigorating.
The structure of his new U.S. tour, which begins with the Beverly shows, is in keeping with his maverick spirit. Instead of the normal tour trek from city to city, playing the same songs with the same musicians, Costello is concentrating on multi-night stands in selected cities (next stop: San Francisco). The special twist is that he has promised to vary the tone of each show.
In a sold-out, five-night stand that runs through Sunday, he's scheduled to perform some nights with his regular band, the Attractions, while backed other nights by the Confederates, the name given to respected L.A. studio musicians who joined him on his recent King of America album. The list of songs is also scheduled to change nightly.
So far, so good.
But this imaginative plan worked better in theory than in practice Wednesday. The music itself was stirring — terrific songs sung with passion and played by the Attractions with captivating, pump-it-up force. But the promised sense of adventure never fully materialized.
The element that could have made a difference was a "request" segment in which Costello let members of the audience determine what songs he would play.
The device captured the imagination of fans like Don Williams, 27. Waiting for the concert to begin, he and his buddies speculated on how the request segment would work.
"I bet he'll draw ticket stubs from a box and then let the people sitting in those seats make a selection," Williams said. A friend suggested that ushers, roaming the theater with cordless microphones, would select people at random.
Too bad Costello didn't consult with these two.
After turning on a playful, illuminated "request" sign, he simply wandered around the stage, collecting scraps of paper from fans who had scribbled song titles on them. One fan, unable to find any paper, wrote his request on a dollar bill.
The singer-guitarist periodically thumbed through the dozens of requests and signaled the three Attractions to begin playing a specific song. But his ability to easily ignore some of the requests destroyed spontaneity. Even if the request was for a song that the Attractions hadn't rehearsed, it would have been fun to have the band attempt it. The aim on this tour shouldn't be polish.
On a broader level, the selection of songs in the regular portion of the nearly two-hour concert was also too predictable. Costello is a prolific writer who has recorded more than 100 songs, many of which have rarely been performed in concert.
While many in the audience seemed eager for some of these neglected tunes, Costello concentrated on his early, best-known numbers and more recent singles, such as "Everyday I Write the Book" and his cover version of the Animals' "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood."
Costello no doubt looks at the series of shows as a package whose shifting character will be defined over the course of the five nights. For anyone who attended just Wednesday's concert, however, the evening wasn't that different from a normal Costello show.
That disappointment aside, Costello remains an artist of immense stature. Where Bruce Springsteen has become public property in rock, Costello still enjoys the intense relationship with fans who consider him a personal — and private — treasure. His writing reflects a compassion and fury perhaps unmatched since early Dylan in its relentless vision and compelling bite. His rough but expressive vocals were backed Wednesday by swirling, keyboard-spiked arrangements that were equally flavorful on neo-rockabilly tunes and torch ballads.
While his critical respect continues to far outdistance his record sales, Costello has exhibited exceptional range and insight, employing humor, sarcasm and poignancy in the exploration of issues like corruption and integrity in both personal relationships and governmental affairs.
He also focuses on the ways insecurities and/or conceits contribute to difficulties in communication. In "Accidents Will Happen," for instance, he sings:
And, it's the damage that we do and never know.
It's the words that we don't say that scare me so.
If there was disappointment among hard-core fans Wednesday over the choice of songs and the request segment, they were quick to forgive. The lobby after the show was abuzz with rumors about guest artists expected to join Costello on other nights. And there was enthusiasm over Saturday's bonus Spinning Wheel — a device that lists the names of dozens of Costello songs. It will be spun periodically to determine which number he'll play next. Now, that's got to be spontaneous.