Elvis Costello, who played the Backyard on Thursday, may be too good for his own good. If he were simply a Dylanesque lyricist of spitfire ingenuity. Or if he were simply the vocalist with the most shades of subtlety among the legion of Van Morrison emulators. Or if his melodicism simply came as close as pop ever does to the sophistication of an Ellington or Gershwin.
If he simply fronted a band — the Attractions, with whom his Brutal Youth album and tour reunites Costello for the first time since 1987 — who are capable of rocking like the Rolling Stones and then grooving like Booker T and the MG's. If he were simply an angry young man grown older, yet retaining a Clash-like edge of aggression. If he simply wore his profound admiration for George Jones — and John Lennon and Smokey Robinson — on his sleeve.
If Elvis Costello were any one of these things, he would have an artistic identity, fixed and eminently marketable. Instead, since he is all of these things, the public beyond Costello's devoted cult has experienced a confusion leading to indifference.
As Dylan, David Bowie or Prince could tell you, a musical artist can only change so much for so long before what was once hailed as genius becomes curdled into mere quirkiness within the popular consciousness. (Especially if he decides to record chamber music with a string quartet as Costello did last time out.)
In concert is where the pieces of the Costello puzzle best fit together, and his current tow is among the more focused of his career. Thursday's sellout show (at a venue a tenth the size of most of the outdoor sheds on this tour) used Costello's illustrious past — and the brilliant backing of the Attractions — to provide context for the incisive maturity of Brutal Youth.
Though the album has more to offer than new-wave nostalgia, the performance found echoes of the set-opening "No Action" — a furious blast from 1978 — reverberating through the new "Pony St.," as Costello and band confirmed that whatever they have gained over the years, they haven't lost anything.
Bringing it all back home, the end of the set found "13 Steps Lead Down" — the latest single to which radio has proven resistant — leading directly (and inevitably) into the anthemic rant of "Radio Radio."
While Elvis and the Attractions made no attempt at forced bonhomie — and barely interacted at all — the interlocking patterns of the four musicians offered an object lesson in intuitive, organic development. No keyboardist beyond the Band's Garth Hudson offers a more vivid array of color ing than Steve Nieve, while the rhythm section of the non-brotherly Thomases — drummer Pete and bassist Bruce — ranks with rock's best, providing the underpinning for the slashing guitar work that is Costello's most underrated talent.
If the four are not exactly soul mates offstage, all the better for the aggression their interplay generates during working hours.
While the performance lacked the reckless intensity and anything-goes adventurism that once marked a Costello set, it celebrated the multiplicity of brilliance possible within the format of the three-minute pop song.
From the heart-melt balladry of "Party Girl" to the mood-indigo eloquence of "London's Brilliant Parade" to the full-throttle acceleration of "Lipstick Vogue," popular music doesn't get much bracingly better than this.
Opening were Canada's Crash Test Dummies, who are selling far more albums than Costello these days to far less artistic effect. An example of the folk-rocky, grit-free high-mindedness that is back in fashion, the Dummies offer basso profundo counterpoint to the Indigo Girls and 10,000 Maniacs, through material that is about half as droll and twice as trite as singer-songwriter Brad Roberts seems to think it is. Their half-hour set didn't need to be a minute longer.