ST. PETERSBURG — Playing as if a gangster were holding a gun at his back, Elvis Costello rampaged through a stunning 34-song, two-hour set at the Bayfront Center that proved the British singer more than lives up to the regality of his chosen stage name.
Backed by the sparse but intense work of The Attractions, Costello rushed through the last show of his American tour as if he were watching the second-hand of a time bomb make its final sweep.
This breakneck pace was ideal for frantic classics like "Pump It Up" and "You Belong To Me," but recent material from Imperial Bedroom and Trust tended to lose the melodic colorings that have marked Costello's progression from angry young man to spokesman for our times.
Melodies of "Watch Your Step," "Pidgin English" and even the show-opening "Accidents Will Happen" were almost obscured by the blistering onslaught. But the loss of musical structure was compensated by a spellbinding sense of urgency that has never come across on record.
That urgency comes not from Steve Nieve's ferocious keyboard playing or the rhythm section of Bruce and Pete Thomas, but rather from Costello's newfound instrument — his husky voice.
From the hoarse whispering of "Secondary Modern" to the dramatic crooning of "Long Honeymoon," Costello has emerged as a captivating stylist, a far cry from the days when he used to spit out vehement diatribes with total disregard for his larynx.
He pulled off such bouncy Motown chestnuts as Smokey Robinson's "From Head to Toe" and "Don't Look Back" or obscure soul gems like "Help Me" and "All These Things" with the same sure-footed passion that backed his explosive version of Little Richard's "Slippin' and Slidin'." He even made a seamless medley out of his own "King Horse" and The O'Jays' "Back Stabbers."
But stiletto-sharp ballads such as "And in Every Home" and "Kid About It" almost over-shadowed such adrenalin-rockers as "Radio, Radio" and "Mystery Dance." By matching theatrical hand motions with his gutsiest singing of the night, Costello came off more as a cunning, funny-looking Frank Sinatra than the vicious "little Hitler" of years past.
And as he finished the last of his two, seven-song encore sets with "Clowntime Is Over," Costello seemed to be laying his hostile image to rest and assuring us that next year's model will reign with open arms, not an iron fist.