SAN FRANCISCO — On English rocker Elvis Costello's latest tour of the United States, a squeaky chair in the next row is an unbearable distraction. And nobody needs to worry about permanent hearing damage.
Costello left his fine backing band, the Attractions, at home for this tour. Playing to a sold-out house at the Warfield Theater Saturday night (the show was repeated Sunday) Elvis accompanied himself on guitar, piano and organ.
During one of his many onstage remarks (in the past, he's been known to go through entire concerts without a single word) Costello called the show "a recital." It certainly wasn't a typical rock concert.
Considered by many to be the finest tunesmith in rock today, Costello seems to relish the rare opportunity this tour provides him. Most serious rock singer-songwriters never play before a quiet, attentive audience. At the Warfield show, Costello's complex, emotional, sometimes bitter songs most of which are about human nature —came across cleanly and to the point.
If most any other rock band attempted to play Costello's songs — "Alison," "Motel Matches," "Losing You" and "Man Called Uncle" come to mind — with only acoustic backing, the results would be disastrous.
But Costello, like perhaps only Bruce Springsteen among rockers, is a more charismatic and powerful performer alone on a bare stage than Kiss, for instance, ever was with their masks, lasers and flame-eating.
Elvis ran through at least twenty of his numbers, as well as a few cover versions: "Yes It Is" and "Baby's In Black" from the Beatle catalog, Bob Dylan's "I Threw It all Away," and during one of four encores, a duet with opening act T-Bone Burnett on the flower-power anthem, Scott McKenzie's "San Francisco."
Burnett, noting the recent bickering over which song should be the official San Francisco song, offered the sappy number as a compromise selection. As he and Costello giggled their way through it, it became evident that Elvis no longer deserves the "angry young man" label that he's been saddled with ever since his 1977 debut.
T-Bone Burnett, like Costello, played a loose, friendly set of his songs, many from his 1983 LP Proof through the Night, a solid hit among critics and a bomb on the store shelves. This tall, lanky Texan opened many shows for the Who on their farewell tour of the United States, and is worth checking out next time he plays the Bay Area. His dry wit and sharp songwriting ability bring to mind a young, hip Bob Dylan.