There can be little doubt that Elvis Costello is the most prodigiously gifted songwriter to have washed ashore with rock's new wave. He's a masterful stylist, supremely versatile and equally capable of sly subtlety and sharp sarcasm. In recordings he has has dabbled successfully in such a wide range of pop idioms that it seems there is little he cannot do. Why, then, have his concerts, such as the one last night at Merriweather Post Pavilion, become so disappointing?
That's not to say that Costello isn't any good live; in fact, there were times last night when he was astounding. But those were the exception. Far too much of Costello's performance was given over to gratuitous flash as he and his band, the Attractions, seemed to see his songs as vehicles for demonstrating their instrumental prowess.
A typical example was "Mystery Dance." One of Costello's earliest songs, it was originally a sort of Eddie Cochran rocker, basic and simple. Last night, however, Costello slowed the song down in order to pad it out with slick, showy arrangement gimmicks, milking the crowd for applause at every opportunity. Granted, it's easy to understand why Costello would want to strut his stuff, especially when he has a band as effortlessly accomplished as the Attractions to help him do so. But much of this concert's unnecessary playing was of the type of glib stadium showboating that Costello seemed to stand against in his early days.
That was especially annoying in view of how it obscured Costello's best material. Some songs came through intact anyway. "Girl Talk," for example, has such an indestructible melody that it can easily weather almost any setting — which may be why Costello seems never to play it the same way twice.
While Costello drew material from the full breadth of his career, his 23-song performance was unfortunately weighted to his recent material. Thus, no "Allison" or "Secondary Modern," but quite a lot of such synthetic soul as "I Wanna Be Loved." It was almost enough to leave the listener wondering if Costello had lost his edge entirely.
Thankfully, he hasn't, and he made that abundantly clear with his encores, which ranged from a chilling "Peace in Our Time" to a joyously aggressive soul medley built around "Pump It Up." It was a terrific burst of energy to go out on, but it would have been an even better starting point for his set.