Elvis Costello, whose songbook is crammed with bona-fide hits and worthy shoulda-beens, has survived comparison with Cole Porter — and gone on to write the gaudy, curious, virtually impenetrable studio productions that dominate his recent Mighty Like A Rose.
At a time when he should be celebrating sheer longevity (his debut, My Aim Is True, appeared in 1977) as well as outright mastery of the pop form, Costello is determined to force his audience to rethink pop. His way.
But he's not shaking the foundations; instead, he's wasting most of his time redecorating the windows. Saturday at the crowded Mann Music Center, Costello's cluttered revolution amounted to meandering, pathos-ridden Marc Ribot guitar solos on love songs, vocal improvisations that strayed painfully from the melody (a nod to Bob Dylan, perhaps?), and far too many waltzes. His current hit "The Other Side Of Summer," for example, was recast as a Dylanesque 12/8 epic ballad.
The paunchy, now-bearded Costello and the Rude 5 did play hits: During three encores, they churned out predictable versions of "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace Love and Understanding," "Alison" and "Pump It Up."
But the set list was full of oddities as well. "Hurry Down Doomsday," an interesting mood piece from Mighty, became dismally boring in the live setting. "Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4," which closes Mighty, found Costello conducting, clumsily, from the piano to help the band navigate the tricky instrumental sections.
Still, with his backlog of acerbic songs, Costello was never far from brilliance. "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror" was positively rousing, and a new Costello/McCartney collaboration from Mighty, "So Like Candy," surpassed the velvety sheen of the recorded version.
The sober, businesslike Replacements opened the show (at 7:58!) with 45 minutes of latter-day Paul Westerberg gems that ran the emotional gamut from sad to desperate to sarcastic to deliriously funny.