You'd have to be a pretty serious Elvis Costello fan to appreciate just how special his performance was Tuesday night at the Irvine Barclay Theatre. Frankly, you'd need to have been that simply to have scored one of 750 tickets, it seems, or at least have a really good friend who's a Barclay subscriber, doesn't know Imperial Bedroom from Imperial Highway and was willing to sell his seat.
Costello, who should rank high on any plausible list of the greatest songwriters ever, has rarely played Orange County, and almost always in Irvine, apart from a lone Pacific gig in '91 (not long before that place closed for a decade) and, if this counts, that time at the Pond in January 2003, when he, then-girlfriend Diana Krall, Ray Charles, Brian Wilson and a bunch more joined Elton John for "Crocodile Rock" at a NAMM fundraiser.
He used to come to "the Kingdom of Orange," as he put it Tuesday, quite regularly in the '80s — even attracted thousands to Irvine Meadows three summers in a row back when "Everyday I Write the Book" and "The Only Flame in Town" landed him on MTV. But he hasn't been back to the Safest City in California in nine years, when he opened for Neil Young at what's now Verizon Wireless Amphitheater, and he hasn't headlined a show in O.C. since he and the Attractions last gave it a go behind Brutal Youth in 1994.
So it was a big deal that Costello returned not for another special occasion in L.A. (like his magnificent Spinning Songbook shows at the Wiltern in April and the previous May) but instead a solo acoustic show just a short drive away, the capper on a brief swing from Redding down to UCI. Naturally, tickets for the Barclay gig on this mockingly dubbed 2054 Centenary Tour (better now than on his 100th birthday, right?) sold out faster than you can name five women in his song titles.
The question is: Did everyone who leapt at the chance for an intimate encounter get what they came for?
Undoubtedly the answer is yes for ardent Costellophiles, but perhaps no in a good many other cases, particularly subscriber types who might have hoped for more "hits" on the order of those that bookended this set, "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" and "Alison," or who simply don't find the raw nakedness of such a richly distinctive voice quite so riveting.
Costello was certainly a vocal powerhouse at many points in the performance, his simmering samba feel for the standard "All or Nothing at All" bubbling from tender whispers to rousing romance, his wail mighty like a rose for the finish of "Veronica." At other times, however, you could notice the toll a week-long one-man tour can take on a singer, often detectable during his best-known tunes: "Accidents Will Happen" was especially ragged, "Red Shoes" too rushed, and at the end of "Everyday I Write the Book," superbly recast in a finger-picked Ron Sexsmith mold, his falsetto flat-out failed him.
Yet those fissures — along with a feeling during infrequently attempted covers (like Dylan's "When I Paint My Masterpiece") and unreleased material (the potent "For More Tears") that maybe Costello was too loosely rehearsed — all grew increasingly fascinating as this two-hour show wore on. When supported by the Imposters, the cracks in Costello's voice can get covered by the passion of the playing. Stripped bare, you hear him warts and all — veering under the notes sometimes, adopting his soft soulful sound one minute and a more biting tone the next, his storytelling emotionally spiked but plainspoken enough to be savored as folk poetry.
Mesmerizing as that was in the moment — and never more so than during the final encore — I still sat seven rows back foolishly awaiting something more, bowled over by his literal nearness but not entirely aware (until later) how unique much of this performance was. I kept expecting favorites like those he'd dropped in Davis and Chico: "Brilliant Mistake," "New Amsterdam," "Our Little Angel," "Blue Chair," "Beyond Belief." I probably shouldn't have inspected the Santa Barbara set list, where he really went all out — 29 songs, including exclusive takes on "American Without Tears," "Last Boat Leaving," "Black and White World" and, to close, "I Want You."
In Irvine, apart from a somewhat reworded version of "King Horse" that took my breath away early on, most gems were harder to recognize — like "Poison Moon," a mid-'70s, pre-My Aim Is True bedroom demo he had performed only a half-dozen times before Tuesday, or the mod jangle of "My Little Blue Window," revived roughly twice as often since entering his catalog a decade ago via When I Was Cruel. Likewise, the Rogers & Ahlert nugget "Running Out of Fools," one of a handful of selections he played at his Kawai keyboard, hadn't been dusted off since 2005, after initially surfacing on his covers collection Kojak Variety 10 years earlier.
Then there was the marvelous "Ghost Train," teenage Declan McManus' view of fading show-biz stars, among the oldest of his own compositions offered here and a centerpiece at every stop on this Centenary run after only being attempted live for the first time on his Sundance chat-and-play series Spectacle three years ago. Along with "Suit of Lights" in the first encore, it served as a means to tell tales of his dear departed dad, another in a long line of performing McManuses, just as "Veronica" gave him room to recollect how his grandmother "hated Al Jolson for putting my grandfather out of business" when talkies left silent-movie musicians jobless.
Littered with stray salutes (like "Doctor Watson, I Presume," for the late Doc Watson) and reflective material (a haunting "Shipbuilding" to dramatically conclude the main set), this was a sentimental excursion to be sure, despite show-stopping moments that seemed to break from the theme.
Some of those detours were compact, like a darling rendition of "Walkin' My Baby Back Home," dedicated to his missus on the day her new album Glad Rag Doll dropped. Others were out-there, like the wildly de-tuned funk stutter of "Bedlam," highly recommended to Dave Matthews Band as an offbeat cover they could jam the bejabbers out of. A few segments were unexpectedly grand, like the loop-building feedback fantasia he brought to a radical handling of "Watching the Detectives," steeped so thickly in circular squalls of Neil Young noise, it's no wonder that at other shows he departed from his own sinister tune for a dip into "Down by the River."
But nothing compared to the finale, which quelled any sneaky feelings that we missed out on better bits. Sitting stage-left, the dapper entertainer pulled out some yellowed sheet music he'd acquired the week before, doffed his trademark glasses ("the way very few people ever see me," he admitted) so he could follow the changes, and indulged a hesitant but lovely reading of "I Know Why (And So Do You)," an oldie he's apparently played just once before, at a 2006 appearance with Marian McPartland for her Piano Jazz show on NPR.