All tangled up in blue, Elvis Costello the king of the old New Wave, is caught in the web that fame, reputation and excellence spins. Trapped in time, Costello is forced to reprise his past at the expense of his present.
At the fairly intimate Beacon Theater for a five-night stand through Monday, Costello attempted to unchain himself from that past even though it's one of the most illustrious in pop music. The hour-and-a-half show offered a shot of the old to a bottle of the new in a concert that wobbled mostly outside of the lines that define greatness in both material and execution.
Like E.C.'s latest album, Kojak Variety, featuring R&B and pop ballads, the opening-night performance focused on slow burners that took a bigger and better voice than Costello has. Often during the concert, the man leaped for notes that were clearly out of his reach, making him sound like a poor man's Van Morrison.
Not that it really mattered to the devoted, who were at the show in force. To them, Elvis could do no wrong even though there would have been no objections if he did a greatest-hits concert rather than blaze a new mellow musical trail. It's easy to cut Elvis slack with so many incredible songs to his credit; but in concert, when he plays any of his old gems, the new tunes are as desirable as lumps of coal.
Where Costello is always excellent — and the Beacon show was no exception — was in his quick rapport with the crowd. The man was charming and chatty, projecting an image of being born to the stage. His easy manner through the night was often enough to make you forget the fact that the program was weighted in slow, plodding ballads.
Of the many slow ones, the standout number was "All This Useless Beauty." It was pretty, gentle, sweetly melodic and laced with a lullaby quality. Costello said this was the song's U.S. debut and that if it wasn't on an album, it would be featured in a coming motion picture.
For me, and many longtime fans, songs like "Accidents Will Happen," "Alison," "Watching the Detectives," and the encore version of "Pump It Up" were where E.C. made his mark. Too bad all of those tunes were written a lifetime ago. What was really too bad was that many of the top-notch covers Costello hammered on Kojak Variety, such as Little Richard's "Bama Lama Bama Loo" and Mose Allison's "Everybody's Crying Mercy," were MIA on the set list.
The rule is to expect nothing and never be disappointed. Unfortunately, each time I go to see Elvis Costello, I expect greatness.