On his current Come Back In A Million Years Tour, in support of the challenging and ultimately rewarding Mighty Like A Rose album, Elvis Costello is playing the most straightforward rock & roll shows of his career.
The tour's first official concert (following a warm-up gig in Santa Barbara) caught Costello in an almost somber mood as he preached to 2200 of the converted at the intimate Wiltern Theater. Dressed in a gray suit and dark glasses and looking like some ultracool Hasidic werewolf, Costello delivered a no-nonsense performance, suggesting once again that his tongue may not have been as firmly in cheek as it once seemed when he took the King of Rock & Roll's name, if not in vain then certainly in jest. Back in the heady days of 1977, Costello seemed like a man with a mission — simultaneously debunking the myth of rock & roll and saving what was left of his soul. Today, he seems more like a distinguished veteran, one of the few whose best work is not necessarily behind him.
For a show that relied on musicality, Costello had the right backing band for the job. The Rude Five appeared tighter and more stripped down than when it first came together for the latter part of the Spike tour. This time around, the group featured the formidable talents of former Attractions drummer Pete Thomas, session keyboard great Larry Knechtel, avant-garde guitar god Marc Ribot and bassist Jerry Scheff.
The set list prominently featured material from Mighty Like A Rose, much of it sounding substantially warmer than the often dense arrangements on the album. A musician who has always been more interested in his latest work than in recycling his past, Costello threw himself into a devastating version of "So Like Candy" (the best song yet to emerge from his writing collaboration with Paul McCartney), a cutting, loose rendition of "How To Be Dumb" and an exquisite performance of "Couldn't Call It Unexpected #4", during which he accompanied himself on piano.
Costello and the Rude Five spent the rest of the show getting rootsy on some choice R&B material, including Willie John's seductive "Hidden Charms" and Little Richard's classic "Bama Lama Bama Loo". From his own songbook, Costello offered a few obvious standards (the timeless "Alison" and "Red Shoes", slowed down to delicate effect) but concentrated on underappreciated album tracks like "Watch Your Step" from Trust, "Home Is Anywhere You Hang Your Head" from Blood & Chocolate and "Suit Of Lights" from King Of America.
Often a chatty frontman in the past, Costello let the music do most of the talking this evening. In part, that may have been a result of his trying to work out the kinks at the beginning of the tour. Then again, it simply may have been that his versions of "You Bowed Down" and Mose Allison's "Everybody's Cryin' Mercy" said more about Costello's world view these days than any witty stage patter possibly could have.
Opening for Costello was Sam Phillips, who recently put out Cruel Inventions, her second impressive album of tuneful, introspective rock for Virgin. At the Wiltern, Phillips was backed by an ensemble befitting a headliner — percussionist Michael Blair, drummer Denny Fongheisser, bassist Eric Pressly, keyboardist Mark Hart, guitarist Rick Boston and guitarist T Bone Burnett, Phillips’s producer and husband, who made a special appearance under the name Qgden Nashville. If there’s any justice, Phillips will have to be picking an opening act of her own in the very near future.