Where to start? Should time first be spent praising Elvis Costello for offering up a 33-song exhibition of passionate conviction? Or should he get the initial applause for having the daring to weave country, soul, rock and pop into his own complex tapestry? Or how about a few cheers for the way in which he and the Attractions played everything — from Webb Pierce to the O'Jays, from a storming rocker like "Mystery Dance" to a wistful ballad like "Man Out Of Time" — with such improvisational ingenuity?
Any of the above would be fine and accurate. Though not as fiery a rocker as in his early days — and no doubt many in attendance Friday would rather he return to that powerfully blunt, straightforward approach — Costello has transformed himself into the complete artist. His songwriting is as strong as ever and not only do he and the Attractions perform at a peak level, but Costello now seems to enjoy doing it.
Trying to pick a few representative highlights is a chore, too, because so much was given. The two-encore set included material from throughout his career and, paced by the intricate keyboard fills offered up by Steve Nieve, all the material was musically sharp and precise. The breathtaking, back-to-back versions of "Pretty Lace Sleeves" and "Beyond Belief" come to mind as examples — the lyrical touches which distinguish each were fleshed out by some extraordinary musical touches which were grafted on during the playing of the song.
It's funny, but whenever you get someone with this much talent, special things always seem to occur. In among the general excellence was one particular moment to savor. Costello was half way through the tender ballad "Alison" when all the lights shorted out. Neither Costello nor the Attractions skipped a beat and the quiet intensity of the number was dramatically heightened. When the lights were restored a moment or so later Costello just shrugged and smiled.
There are a couple bones to pick with the show. For one, Costello just doesn't have a very good voice. Not much can be done about that, but a few steps could be taken to enhance his husky vocals. In the larger facilities the powerful sound systems tend to muddy even the sharpest tones — at Irvine many of Costello's most exquisite lyric lines were turned into mush because, in his intense preoccupation with singing the numbers passionately, Costello tended to "swallow" the microphone. It's a flaw that needs to be corrected.
One other technical deficiency was particularly noticeable at Irvine Meadows. For whatever reason, Costello's crew sticks to back lighting and avoids the powerful spotlight beams which are standard at most big shows. It didn't make any difference to anyone sitting in the first 20 rows, but those on the lawn must have had a rough time keeping an eye on the stage.
Of course, whatever the technical flaws there certainly was not a shortage of artistry.