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Still fierce after all these years

By GINA VIVINETTO, Times Pop Music Critic
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 4, 2002

CLEARWATER -- For the first time in more than 20 years British pop icon Elvis Costello treated Tampa Bay area fans to a performance Sunday.

Not since 1982 has Costello, 47, played these parts. At sold-out Ruth Eckerd Hall on Sunday night, 2,173 fans devoured the legendary songwriter's hits, dating back to gems from his start in the late 1970s, and new tunes.

Costello, dressed in jeans and a dark suit jacket, was joined by his band, the Imposters -- basically his old band, the Attractions, with a new bassist.

No longer the Angry Young Man of the post-punk scene, Costello still plays with a conviction and ferocity we don't see enough of these days. He smiles onstage, and cracks jokes in between songs, but make no mistake, Costello's music is still fueled by his ever-changing moods.

Old songs got punchy new twists -- didn't Clubland sound marvelous with the breakdown in the middle? (I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea showcased Steve Nieve's tinkly keyboards and Costello's ravaged guitar, which sounded like it was spitting out licks. Nieve's trademark zippy organ recalled a carnival ride on opener I Hope You're Happy Now and Watching The Detectives.

The new tunes, from When I Was Cruel, Costello's first studio album in seven years, are as good as anything he's done. The deceptively bouncy Tear Off Your Own Head simmered. The nostalgic 45 was winning in its simple yearning for the good old days of vinyl records.

Costello's collaborations with high falutin' friends -- the Brodsky Quartet, Burt Bacharach, opera singer Anne Sofie von Otter -- have served him well. Never has Costello's voice sounded so dynamic. The rage-filled snarls and snickers are still there, but Costello's come-hither croon has become a seasoned, solid, wonderful thing. He seemed to relish showing it off on Alison. In an almost perversely post-modern moment, that song morphed into Elvis Presley's Suspicious Minds. (Elvis does Elvis?!)

Other encore tunes included (What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?, Radio, Radio and a buoyant Pump It Up and had fans dancing in front of the stage.

Bright new talent Laura Cantrell was a terrific opener. A popular roots music DJ in the New York-New Jersey area, Cantrell, 35, and her band played the sort of "cosmic American" music pioneered by Gram Parsons. The quartet performed twangy country awash in pedal steel guitar courtesy of Jon Graboff, who also played a delightful mandolin, and later a Rickenbacker on the poppy, Byrdsy numbers.

-- To reach Gina Vivinetto, email .

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