Elvis Costello is a rock singer who has digested enough Tony Bennett and Jackie Wilson to successfully dabble in more ambitious musical projects.
Monday night at Benaroya Hall, accompanied by himself on guitar and longtime band-mate Steve Nieve on piano and melodica, Costello sang material from his latest project, the art-song cycle North, as well as a healthy sampling from his songbook.
There were plenty of nuggets among the more than 30 songs performed, among them a passionate and direct version of "Sleep of the Just," from King of America. But if Costello is going to play the high-stakes game of the legitimate singer, he is going to have to get better at it. Flaws that go unnoticed when accompanied by a loud rock band can seriously damage the credibility of a singer alone at a microphone in a recital hall.
Costello has a pleasant mid-tenor range, but his lower notes are barely there, and he is so tense in his upper register that it sometimes seems he is squeezing the notes out through his eyes. His choice of accompanist doesn't help. Nieve is capable of providing tasteful support, but too often is off on his own tangents, bashing out flourishes every which way but in the direction determined by the chord progressions.
The 2½ hour concert opened with "45" from When I Was Cruel, the album Costello was touring behind during his last Seattle visit. It also was when most of the material for North was written.
Much of North sounds like student work, but there were exceptions, such as the passionate "When It Sings," which found Costello really singing, not just trying to hit the notes.
As is often the case when Costello comes to town, the encores were as long as the main part of the show. The first six-song encore ended with a deconstruction of "Watching the Detectives" that would have made John Cale and Robert Fripp proud. The second offered a preview of three newly written songs, none of which was first-rate.
The final encore opened with a note-perfect rendition of "Almost Blue," a song that is almost beginning to fulfill its destiny as a jazz standard. Costello showed he still had some surprises left in him when he called Nieve back for a penetrating version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "You'll Never Walk Alone." Once Costello strapped on the big Elvis Gibson and played the opening chords of "Pump It Up," it was rock 'n' roll as usual for the remainder of the night.