Elvis Costello gives hardcore fans the goods at St. Pete’s Mahaffey Theater

And the encore didn’t suck either.

click to enlarge Elvis Costello gives hardcore fans the goods at St. Pete’s Mahaffey Theater
Photos by Sandra Dohnert

Hardcore fans of early Elvis Costello — those who have his first eight albums tattooed in their gray matter — absolutely got the goods during his concert at the Mahaffey Theater Sunday night.

Costello — along with his three-piece band, the Imposters, and two vivacious female backup singers — opened the show with eight consecutive songs off seven albums released from 1977 to 1983, including the highly familiar (“Accidents Will Happen,” “Clubland”), the less recognizable but nevertheless exquisite (“Watch Your Step”), and deep-dive album tracks (“Green Shirt,” “Charm School,” “Mystery Dance”).

PHOTOS: Photos of Elvis Costello & the Imposters playing St. Petersburg

In all — and this is coming from a more casual Costello fan, but certainly an admirer — the concert was a solid three-star affair, with an appealing selection of tunes enlivened by the 65-year-old singer-songwriter’s easy rapport with the audience, the natural chemistry of his long-time band, and a sturdy vocal performance (albeit somewhat muddied in the sound mix). However, the concert, which clocked in at about an hour-and-40-minutes, didn’t quite reach full launch, came up short on the ecstatic moments and crescendos that make for a truly great live music experience. 

By and large, it was a rock and roll show — peppered with the appropriate dose of ballads, but leaving out Costello’s more arty and genre-bound material. For instance, the only LP not represented in the opening segment was 1981’s countri-fied Almost Blue.

Dressed in a rumpled gray suit, with a red tie and white Stetson-style hat, Costello is far removed from the wired, in-your-face stage presence of his younger years. That can happen. Artists tend to breathe a little easier when they’re comfortably ensconced in legendhood and the world regards them as one of the top songwriters of their generation.

Costello stuck closely to the recorded versions of the tunes, pushing the tempos a bit, but on one notable occasion took some liberties that paid off handsomely — he transformed the bouncy “Tears Before Bedtime” (from 1982’s Imperial Bedroom, my favorite Costello album) into a simmering R&B ballad that showcased the raw soul of the background vocalists.

Mid-set, Costello adjourned to piano (with the women tagging along) and took a sharp veer into obscure-ville. He performed “The Greatest Love” by semi-legendary New Orleans R&B artist Lee Dorsey (without naming him), and then two numbers from a Broadway musical-in-progress, Face in the Crowd: The title song and the ballad “Blood & Hot Sauce.” Neither made much of an impression.

This segment represented the show’s… let’s not call it a dead zone, but rather, a fuzzy, unfocused phase when audience members flocked to the bars and restrooms. 

Costello and company finished strong. With his side singers no longer off to the right but flanking him closely at center stage, he launched into a rousing set of uptempo tunes played medley-style. “This Year’s Girl” got things going, “Beyond Belief” raised the temperature further, and the momentum continued with “High Fidelity,” “Party Girl,” and “Pump It Up,” which got everyone out of their seats. “Mr. & Mrs. Hush,” a Motown-ish tune from last year’s Look Now album, fit right in, buoyed by the regular refrain “are you ready?”

Without a pause, the ensemble lit into “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” which, um, went over quite well with the crowd. After stopping to regather, Costello eased into “Alison” with just his unamplified vocal and soft electric guitar. The rest of the band joined in, the volume jumped up, and while this version didn’t capture the tenderness of the original, it finished the concert on a feel-good note. 

Random postscript: This show was among a few recent concerts I’ve seen in the last year or so that dispensed with the ritual of leaving the bandstand and coming back for an encore. I like it. A truly extraordinary show might call for an impromptu encore, but as a staged event, why bother? In most cases, the act says its goodbyes then departs, the crowd cheers in obligation, the band comes back and plays another song or two. When you think about it, the ritual is antiquated and even kind of silly.

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About The Author

Eric Snider

Eric Snider is the dean of Bay area music critics. He started in the early 1980s as one of the founding members of Music magazine, a free bi-monthly. He was the pop music critic for the then-St. Petersburg Times from ‘87-’93. Snider was the music critic, arts editor and senior editor of Weekly Planet/Creative...
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