Elvis Costello drew fans from as far away as Atlanta, Chicago and St. Louis to his concert Sunday night at the Grand Ole Opry House, one of only three U.S. sites on his current tour.
But despite the strong appeal indicated by his fans' travel distances, Costello sold only about three-quarters of the Opry House's 4,400 seats.
That is a shame, since Costello is easily the most talented and versatile songwriter to come out of the New Wave movement.
The label "New Wave" may be the reason Costello's following is still at a cult rather than a mass level. From his debut on Saturday Night Live four years ago, he appeared to share with many new acts a sort of anti-intellectual or anti-establishment attitude toward mainstream rock, but musically that is not really true.
Costello's music is new and imaginative both melodically and lyrically when compared to what's heard on radio (where Costello's music is never played except in Linda Ronstadt cover versions), but his is an improvement on contemporary rock music rather then a statement against.
The only thing mildly New Wave about Costello now is his appearance. With black-rimmed glasses and suit-and-tie trimmings (gray suit with dark blue shirt for the first set, tuxedo for the second), he still looks like an emaciated Buddy Holly.
As Costello opened Sunday's concert with a rock number, "Accidents Will Happen," the crowd stood and several hundred rushed the stage — a super-charged re-enactment of the normal Friday or Saturday night scene at the Opry House. Only this time, the crowd stayed there — standing or, during fast tunes, dancing up and down — for the entire show.
In another similarity to the Opry, Costello performed a 30-minute segment of country material which featured John McFee of the Doobie Brothers on steel guitar.
Performing songs from his Almost Blue album, which was recorded in Nashville, Costello gave his stylized — but nevertheless country — treatment to tunes like "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down," "Sweet Dreams" and his own "Stranger in the House," originally released as a duet with George Jones.
In a concert last year at Vanderbilt he silenced the crowd with a few country tunes and the same thing happened Sunday. It wasn't until he played a fast version of "Why Don't You Love Me Like You Used to Do" that the crowd returned to its initial level of interest.
Costello's show was divided into sets of about 55 minutes and 80 minutes including encores.
Where the first showcased his newest work, country, along with up tempo crowd pleasers, the second set was Costello's proof that he can write any kind of song well, including standard '40s-style ballads.
Dave Olney and the X-Rays opened the concert, the most important appearance to date for the popular Nashville-based band.
Judging from the crowd's favorable reaction, Olney's material — story-song lyrics set to blues-based music — won him some new fans.
He started his set seeming (to those used to seeing him at Cantrell's nightclub) restrained on-stage, but by the time he built up to a dramatic collapse during his final tune, "The Contender," it was obvious he is one bar act who will be able to make the transition to a successful concert artist.