The old missus and I went to see Elvis Costello at San Francisco's Davies Symphony Hall a couple of nights ago. It was an odd performance.
In the first half, the Symphony performed Costello's first full-length orchestral work, Il Sogno, while Costello sat listening in the audience.
In the second half, Costello took the stage to sing a selection of downbeat, brainy tunes, mixing classical with jazz and not much pop. Backed by the San Francisco symphony, Costello's loungey songs were dour, yet he was very droll between. He's obviously a musical genius, but it's like reading late Anthony Burgess — a lot of work and not much fun.
I've never been a Costello fan, and towards the end I was willing it to be over, but his last piece came so close to being one of the greatest concert moments I've ever experienced, it nearly salvaged what came before. But the audience ruined it.
For the last song, Costello dispensed with his microphone, and the effect of his unamplified voice in that large auditorium was astonishing and magical. Everyone craned forward to hear, and the hushed atmosphere raised the hairs on my neck. As the song reached its climax, Costello tried to get the audience to join him singing the last bars, a "hum, de hum" refrain repeated three or four times.
The first time the audience hesitated, and the second time it almost caught. It was a fantastic moment — hundreds of people so nearly raising the roof with a lovely vocal. But unfortunately it faltered, and after a third failed attempt Costello gave up, turning instead to the orchestra to raise a rumpus.
It was a great shame, and a little depressing. He came so close, but the stuffy old octogenarians wrecked it. I wonder if he had better luck at other venues?