Chronic problems with the sound mix and then a total — albeit temporary — outage in the house speakers threatened to turn Elvis Costello & the Imposters’ Wednesday night concert at Stifel Theatre into a Thanksgiving Eve turkey.
It wasn’t Costello’s fault, nor was it the Imposters’. But the sound was so poor on this particular occasion — at a venue where that is very seldom the case — concertgoers could rightly have thought they were being given the bird and told to stuff it.
For their part, Costello and his band battled the bad sound and carried on as best they could. At one point, the Rock & Roll Hall of Famer tried to make light of it. “As you know, all elements of show business have a good dose of ritual humiliation involved in them,” he said. “Just look at us tonight.”
Noting that his current tour was titled “Look Now and Then,” he cracked, “I didn’t think the ‘then’ was before they made electricity.”
Give Costello credit for being onstage at all right now. In July, he canceled a handful of dates after surgery for what he wrote on his website was “a small but very aggressive cancerous malignancy.” But he is back on the road and his two-and-a-quarter hour Stifel show featured a generous set of more than two dozen songs, seven of them from “Look Now,” his first album of new material in five years and his best in ages.
Much of the concert was given over to fan favorites from deep in Costello’s bountiful catalog. He came out swinging hard with three of those songs, “This Year’s Girl,” “Honey, Are You Straight or Are You Blind?” and “Clubland.”
But even early on, the sound mix was off and Steve Nieve’s keyboards — an essential component of Costello’s sound — were nowhere near as loud as they should have been.
Costello continued with “Don’t Look Now” and “Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter,” collaborations with songwriting deities Burt Bacharach and Carole King, respectively. Perhaps acknowledging that he might need to explain to some fans who Bacharach is (though he has memorably worked with him before), Costello sang a line from “The Look of Love” at the outset of another new song by the pair, “Photographs Can Lie.”
His voice was a little road-worn and somewhat unwieldy on ballads where he reached for high notes. Occasionally, he sang behind the beat, an effective technique when it worked, but causing noticeable misfires — as on “Girls Talk” — when it didn’t.
The show reached its high watermark with a sequence that began with a dramatic take on “So Like Candy” that Costello paired with the Animals (via Nina Simone) classic, “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.”
Costello followed that with his noir-ish rocker, “Watching the Detectives.”
But then, near the finale of “Deep Dark Truthful Mirror,” things went sideways. The house sound cut out completely. The stage monitors worked, so Costello didn’t know the audience couldn’t hear him. He tried to carry on with the new song “He’s Given Me Things,” but abandoned it when audience unrest let him know something was awry.
Ever the trouper, Costello grabbed an acoustic guitar and tested the acoustics of the old Opera House, singing “Radio, Radio” without amplification. The audience joined in, then gave him a standing ovation.
When things still weren’t fixed, the musicians left the stage for a few minutes. When they returned, the house speakers were back, but the sound was a mess. Some microphones didn’t work, and Nieve’s keyboards were missing in action for the remainder of the night.
The band powered through “Alison,” “High Fidelity” (unintentionally ironic lyric: “Can you hear me?”), “Everyday I Write the Book” and other favorites. But the show’s subpar sonics couldn’t be overcome.
Still, give Costello points for dropping some choice song references into his own material. “Everyday” swung momentarily into Jean Knight’s soul chestnut “Mr. Big Stuff”; “I Want You” included another Bacharach reference, “I Say a Little Prayer,” as well as the Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”; and the new song “Unwanted Number” transformed into a full version of bluesman Otis Rush’s “It Takes Time.”
Costello also gave a glimpse into his songwriting process, revisiting the character from “Jimmie Standing in the Rain” years later on the new song, “Under Lime.”
After a more or less satisfying encore that included “Pump It Up” and “(What’s So Funny ’bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” Costello sat down at Nieve’s piano to sing one more: “A Face in the Crowd” from his musical in progress. It should have been a treat, but once again, the microphone wasn’t patched into the house speakers.
Somehow, the situation righted itself by song’s end, but the damage was done.
Costello has had a checkered relationship with St. Louis over the years, once studiously avoiding the city for more than a decade and a half. When he returned, so did his audience, and most (but not all) of the faithful stuck with him through this unfortunate show.
This relationship can’t end like this. Costello’s music deserves a fair hearing, and his St. Louis fans deserved better than they got Wednesday night.
Elvis Costello set list:
“This Year’s Girl”
“Honey, Are You Straight or Are You Blind?
“Don’t Look Now”
“Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter”
“Photographs Can Lie”
“Dishonor the Stars”
“So Like Candy”/“Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”
“Watching the Detectives”
“Deep Dark Truthful Mirror”
“He’s Given Me Things”
“Unwanted Number”/“It Takes Time”
“Everyday I Write the Book”
“Jimmie Standing in the Rain”/“Under Lime”
“I Want You”
“Pump It Up”
“American Gangster Time”
“(What’s So Funny ’bout) Peace, Love and Understanding”
“A Face in the Crowd”