Elvis Costello perseveres in marathon San Diego show

The San Diego Union Tribune: George Varga: April 8th 2016

Perseverance and artistry paid off in a big way for Elvis Costello Thursday night at the Balboa Theatre. The 2003 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee was able to overcome his atypical vocal problems through determination, some key help from his potent opening act, Larkin Poe, and the sheer force of Costello’s personality and gem-filled songbook.

Where a less-experienced, less-gifted performer might have cut the set short, Costello dug down deep, after repeatedly being unable to hit most of his marks on his most well-known and obscure selections alike.

While he faltered and plodded through much of the first half of his nearly 2-hour-and-40-minute show, he came alive in a very visceral manner for the second half. The result almost qualified as two concerts in one.

The first half featured around 20 songs, beginning with “Complicated Shadows” and concluding with “Watching the Detectives.” The latter number was one of several in which Costello, 61, electronically looped his rhythm guitar part so he could play a distorted, bare-bones lead on top of it.

The sold-out show’s opening portion lagged because of Costello’s often painfully strained voice, bumpy pacing and an over-amplified sound mix — how hard can it be to get a good balance with just one vocal microphone and guitar?

His singing was diminished to such a degree that the top half of Costello’s range seemed to have vanished, as he repeatedly reached for notes beyond his grasp. He had no such problems during his masterful 2010 solo performance at the Balboa (which also boasted a far superior audio mix).

Thursday’s focus on ballads may have been fine if Costello’s voice was in tiptop shape. So would his decision to deliver such spirited favorites as “(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes” and “Everyday I Write the Book” at torch-ballad tempos. But not at a show where he audibly struggled and hit one clam after another.

Costello’s penchant for slow tempos worked better in some instances, including a deft medley of “Clown Time Is Over,” “Mexican Divorce” and a portion of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2),” all of which he sang while playing a piano at one end of the vintage TV-themed stage.

“Brick” had a humorous subtext. When introducing “Accidents Will Happen” earlier in the concert, he recalled a romantic fling in Tucson that ended when his fleeting paramour expressed her preference to hear all of side two of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” not Costello’s choice, Iggy Pop’s “The Idiot.”

Happily, the concert’s second half — which featured just under 20 songs divided between three encores — was vastly better.

The first half, to use a running analogy, suggested Costello would have struggled to complete a 10K run, even at a saunter. But during his encores, he was almost magically transformed into a marathon man.

He found his rhythm and most of the notes that had previously eluded him. He may also have been inspired by the spirited instrumental and vocal accompaniment on most of his encores from Larkin Poe — sisters Rebecca and Megan Lovell, who are 26 and 25, respectively.

A reanimated Costello sounded fully engaged, whether delivering a rousing “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” ripping through “Pump It Up” with palpable punk-rock fury, making his 1977 lament, “Alison,” sound even more wrenching than usual, or paying heartfelt tribute to the late Merle Haggard with two exquisite country ballads, both by Haggard, “No Reason to Quit” and “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down.”

In between the two Haggard songs, a large color photo was projected of Costello with Haggard and fellow country-music troubadour Hank Cochran. Haggard, Costello told the audience, “Was like Mt. Rushmore to me. Like many people in England, I learned his song from records by The Byrds, Gram Parsons and even the Grateful Dead.”

The Dead qualification was for the benefit of San Diego basketball legend Bill Walton, who was in an aisle seat near the stage and has attended more than 850 Dead concerts. Costello, also an avid Deadhead, performed the Dead classic “Ramble On Rose” with Walton at Humphreys Concerts by the Bay in 2012. On Thursday, Costello and the Lovell sisters sang an achningly beautiful version of the Dead’s “It Must Have Been the Roses,” which paired very well with their two Haggard selections.

Ever the raconteur, Costello told more than a few stories between songs. Several were about his late father, English singer and big band leader Ross MacManus, who was one of his son’s biggest artistic inspirations and — in 1963 — shared a stage with The Beatles at a Royal Command Performance in London. Ross performed “If I Had a Hammer,” which (Costello joked) “was a favorite of the Queen Mother.”

It’s unfortunate some attendees left before the encores, when Costello belatedly kicked into gear and his music came fully alive. It was well worth the wait.