The last time I saw Elvis Costello perform, it was at Brandeis University, where Costello had stopped as part of the tour supporting his 1989 album, Spike. He was in fine form, both musically and theatrically: Midway through the show, he took requests based on the selection of one of "seven deadly sins" from a giant satin heart.
His show last Friday at Great Woods poured all of that theatrical energy into the music, and the additional effort really showed. Costello sounded sharp, polished, and totally in control. His new band, the Rude 5 (actually comprising four members), was equally tight, especially the drummer, whose opening solo on "Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs are Taking Over)" echoed a driving jungle beat.
Costello opened the show with two old numbers, "Accidents Will Happen" and "The Angels Want to Wear my Red Shoes." But this evening was no retrospective of Costello's greatest hits; he dedicated most of his set to his more recent material, including songs from Spike and his current release, Mighty Like a Rose.
Many of the selections from Mighty Like a Rose stood with Costello's earlier work as some of his strongest. One of these was "So Like Candy," a bittersweet song about a lost lover. The song swung with the loose, jazzy rhythm of the Twin Peaks soundtrack.
Curiously, the material from Spike, an album which received mixed reviews, was some of the most dynamic. Costello brought out the gospel flavor and heartache of "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror," the poignancy of "Veronica," and the twisted humor of "God's Comic." The latter, a song about a "comical priest" who dies, goes to heaven, meets God, and is told about how miserably humans have screwed up the world, is an unlikely candidate for a sing-along, but that was exactly what Costello did. Imagine thousands of people singing the following lines:
Now I'm dead, now I'm dead,
Now I'm dead, now I'm dead
And I'm going on
to meet my reward
I was scared, I was scared,
I was scared, I was scared
You might have never heard of God's Comic.
Costello's skill as an arranger showed in the concert version of "The Other Side of Summer," the current single. Instead of playing the song straight, matching venomous lyrics with Beach Boys harmonies, Costello switched the song to 6/8 time, giving it a more rollicking feel. He also altered "Hurry Down Doomsday (The Bugs are Taking Over)," augmenting the drum line so that it was not only longer but more prominent. Costello frequently records different arrangements of songs — there are at least three versions of "The Blue Chair" — but it seems as though no version is better than any other; each just draws different emotions and colors from the song. So it was with "Hurry Down Doomsday" and "The Other Side of Summer," which were interesting changes from the originals, but were no more impressive.
He concluded the concert as he had started it, with a series of old standards: "Pump it Up," "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding" and "Alison."
The Replacements opened the evening with "I Will Dare," their jubilant song from Let it Be. Since their inception, they've lost half of their original line-up, replacing guitarist Bob Stinson and drummer Chris Mars. Yet they have retained much of their early sound: the hard-edged guitar, the throbbing bass and drums, and singer Paul Westerberg's anguished, frustrated lyrics.
For a change, the band sounded focused. This was the first time I had ever seen the band perform sober, and they lost their alcohol-induced sloppiness, which, though occasionally both charming and funny, was mostly annoying and detrimental to their music. They slammed through 14 songs in 45 minutes, mixing old songs such as "Waitress in the Sky" and "Answering Machine" with material from their latest album, All Shook Down.
The Replacements' best number, however, turned out to be a cover, "Route 66." They delivered a gritty, bar-band version that blew away Depeche Mode's.