CLEARWATER - Elvis Costello could teach pop music's current crop a thing or two about "unplugged" performances. The 49-year-old British musician seem to bristle with electricity Thursday before a crowd of 1,408 at Ruth Eckerd Hall in the first of two Tampa Bay area performances. (Costello performs tonight at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.)
Backed only by pianist Steve Nieve, his comrade from the Attractions, Costello culled for more than two hours from his three decade career. Known for complex lyrics that oscillate between the oblique and the poetic, Costello seems lately to be focusing on one theme: amore.
Certainly love drives 2003's North, an album of piano ballads. For those that criticize the album's somber mood - and it's definitely a song cycle tailor-made for twilight and falling leaves - they're missing Costello's point. The songs chronicle a rebirth and suggest that love is cyclical, like the seasons. The heart can rejuvenate.
Costello has found love with new wife, Canadian jazz singer-pianist Diana Krall. The evidence is all over North and in the former Angry Young Man's playful demeanor. Onstage he cracks jokes and encourages audience sing-alongs.
Costello and Nieve opened with Accidents Will Happen, which Nieve punctuated with blasts of cascading piano behind Costello's acoustic guitar, followed by 45, Costello's ode to vinyl records, on which Nieve picked up the melodica - one of those funny little keyboards you blow into like a trumpet, alternating between that instrument and the grand piano. The two continued knocking out favorites: Every Day I Write the Book, (What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding? and Man Out of Time.
Costello often removed his guitar and sang at the mike, empty-handed. During these numbers, Costello's vocal range and strength were unmistakable. He has lately honed his voice into a real instrument, found its nuances, built it up and seems at last comfortable with it.
Many times - particularly during a riveting reading of Shot With His Gun - Costello stepped away from the mike, singing as he wandered the stage, his voice as mighty as if he were amplified.
Encores included a grab bag of favorites and covers including the melancholy Almost Blue, a rollicking Pump It Up, a bit of Peggy Lee's Fever, and the Patsy Cline chestnut Sweet Dreams.
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