Elvis Costello is an artist, not an entertainer. His only crowd-pleasing concessions Tuesday at the Los Angeles Sports Arena were his first seven songs of the night and the five encore songs which constituted two greatest-hits run-throughs of the popular, hook-filled tunes from his first three albums.
In between, he challenged his audience with country music and his own recent, less accessible material. His delivery was unembellished by such concert niceties as fancy lighting, exciting movements or charming between-song patter.
After the seven introductory rockers, Costello brought out steel-guitar player John McFee and settled into a set of classic country songs from his latest Columbia album, Almost Blue. There was noticeable foot shuffling and other signs of unrest amongst the crowd, even a few shouts of "rock 'n' roll!"
The impact of Costello's country set was marred by a poor sound system which, coupled with his customarily mumbly vocals, rendered the lyrics nearly unintelligible.
Even though the words were lost, however, Costello's intensity clearly carried throughout the large arena. Such songs as "Sweet Dreams" may have been sung with greater proficiency by any number of country artists, but they have rarely been delivered with so much emotion.
The second half of the concert consisted primarily of Costello's most recent original material, Most of these songs were hardly the sort to keep his audience dancing and clapping. They had few hooks, and many featured complex rhythm changes.
Instrumentally, they were dominated by keyboards which lessened their accessibility to a generation weaned on guitar riffs. In fact, much of the second half material was closer in style to '40s and '50s pop than rock 'n' roll.