Elvis Costello opened his show at the Wells Fargo Center in Santa Rosa Friday night with an absolutely rollicking version of “Mystery Train,” complete with a showbiz ending that had the short, bespectacled leader kicking his heels, pumping his arms and conducting his diesel-engine band to a chugging, smoke-spewing halt.
It was one of the evening’s highlights in a lopsided concert that included as many yawn-inducing patches as it did occasional resurrections of the idea that Elvis Costello is one of the universe’s most impressive performers.
Even with an all-acoustic band, featuring Jim Lauderdale, Mike Compton and Jerry Douglas, Costello acted the consummate rock star by strutting across the stage, thrusting the neck of his guitar into the air and posturing wildly at the end of his songs. He cracked wise with the crowd, told stories and brushed off requests between songs. He finished his four-song encore with “Alison,” left the stage, and indulged the crowd even into the second hour of the show with more songs.
The only problem—and this is kind of a big deal when they take up so much time—was the songs. Elvis Costello has something like 863 songs, and a sustainable percentage of them are so good it hurts. Friday night, he played barely any of them, pulling instead mostly from his dull new album and a bunch of cover material. This was expected, yes—although when Costello’s magic lies in providing the unexpected, the evening felt lazy and predictable (especially when contrasted against his powerhouse setlist the first time he appeared at the venue, with Steve Nieve, in 1999).
The night had its moments. Along with “Mystery Train,” a downright psychedelic “The Delivery Man” was one of the few treasures that actually showcased the spine-tingling dynamics of the band, complete with distorted fiddle and atmospheric stillness. The accordion pulled slowly, Costello’s 4-string guitar buzzed, and the tune wound down like a late-night AM station slowly fading out of range.
“Mystery Dance” and “Blame it on Cain” both rambled with accented minor-blues-thirds the original recordings always hinted at, and a honky-tonk reworking of “Everyday I Write the Book” made more sense that it should. And though a 3/4-time cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale” and an encore of the Rolling Stones’ “Happy” had people literally dancing in the aisles, Elvis Costello ambling through “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down” for the zillionth time had them nearly asleep.
That’s the problem with this tour (one of them, at least). Elvis Costello has never been great at singing country music. He’s just as unconvincing singing “Americana,” and just because he calls together an amazing group of players and whips up some crowd-pleasing stuff like “Friend of the Devil” doesn’t mean that he’s on his game. He’s on someone else’s game, and for someone as singularly intelligent and talented as he, it doesn’t fit. Sure, he can be proud of writing a terrible song for Johnny Cash, or for hiring the finest dobro player in the universe and not giving him any space to stretch out and be showcased, and that’s fine, but why not listen to John Prine or Gillian Welch do the same thing with far more heart and soul? As for his new material, it’s not a good sign when Costello’s explanations of the songs are infinitely more entertaining than the songs themselves.
And yet just like he knows how to end a tune, Elvis Costello knows how to end a show. He brought the house down with his last encore, recalling the fire and joy of Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions tour, and closed the night with “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.”
Shouldn’t all shows end with that song? No matter how drab the interim, it forgives all.