Elvis Costello’s recent concerts with longtime keyboardist Steve Nieve are a precarious balance. El has to satiate the audience’s new wave nostalgia while getting it to fall in love with whatever his current obsession is. While it was fun to see Costello play "Radio Radio" with the Beastie Boys on the Saturday Night Live anniversary special, casting a national TV nod back to his early days probably won’t do the older, wiser Costello many favors in the long run.
After all, the once-adenoidal angry young man has honed his vocal talents in his current guise. This much was apparent Friday night on the first song alone, the new, unreleased "Alibi Factory," sung in darkness except for some moody back lighting. With jagged guitar and spiky synths, Costello’s rich, sneering baritone shook the floor of the E-Centre (which in its "intimate," indoor setting resembles a large high school gym).
The first part of the show was the most tentative, more impressive for its experimentation than musical merit. Costello and Nieve performed "Man Out of Time" and "Party Girl" almost in slow motion, attempting to get inside these tunes and find new ways of getting out of them — and not always succeeding.
By the time the duo hit their stride, with achingly lovely renditions of "Alison" and "Everyday I Write the Book," the show was almost "over." But after 19 songs, what this really means is E.C. will take five encores (the fifth included seven songs). As soon as you first say "goodnight," you create an anticipation that the show’s almost over, and anything more than three more songs tends to breed restlessness. Some people, just there to hear 20-year-old hits, started filing out of the arena.
It was their loss, ’cause Costello continued to prove his artistic mettle. Sure, the crowd got to hear "Pump it Up" and "(The Angels Want to Wear My) Red Shoes" among others, but it’s on the ballads that he shines these days, from the dark, dark crawl through "I Want You" to the poignant, anti-war "Shipbuilding" to another memorable new song "When I Was Cruel." He finally closed up shop with the stark tale of a man awaiting execution, "Favourite Hour," cradling a bunch of bouquets in one arm ("Who’s a diva now?" he cracked) and clutching the mike with his other hand. And when the song reached its prayerful conclusion, for a brief moment, before some particularly rabid applause, no one dared utter a sound.