Of all the ways Elvis Costello has played his music, few have captured the 45-year-old Englishman's charm like the stripped-down duo performance he gave Thursday at the Backyard.
Collaborations with the Brodsky Quartet or random backup bands never earned Costello four encores, as was the case Thursday.
Playing for 2½ hours with only Attractions bandmate Steve Nieve by his side, Costello kept things simple. No opening act; no long solos or congratulatory jams; nothing but his songs, his tender-but-gravelly voice (which was dead-on) and a little piano or organ accompaniment to accentuate the harmonies. For the 2,100 enamored fans, no more assembly was required.
While other aging performers including Neil Young and Pete Townshend lean on their unplugged alter-egos like hobbled horses — "Cinnamon Girl" and "My Generation" were never meant to be played in a sit-down theater — the style suits Costello's music just fine.
It seemed best to be seated, anyway, as dissatisfied love songs including "Indoor Fireworks" and the new "Suspect My Tears" hit where it hurt. Long ago, the bespectacled singer put the mature twist on the love-sick pop song. In the more recent works he performed on Thursday, he dealt out subjects like infidelity ("Sweetest Punch") and long lost love ("I Still Have That Other Girl") the way Mark McGwire deals out baseballs.
One of Costello's strengths, which shined on Thursday, is his acknowledgement of both his and his audience's maturation. How many pop stars look at their future with such gloomy but wise eyes the way Costello did in songs like "Now I'm Dead" and "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror"?
Nostalgia seeped into the show, but it took its sweet time. Aside from obscure old songs like "Little Triggers" and "Temptation," Costello didn't revisit the past until deep into the latter half of his performance, with a pairing of "Alison" and "Radio Sweetheart" followed by encores including "Everyday I Write the Book," "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes" and even "Inch by Inch."
During "Radio Sweetheart," the first song Costello ever recorded, he talked about his dream of one day playing on stage in Austin, Texas, with a trio of ladies in sequined dresses by his side singing backup.
"I'm still waiting for the girls," Costello said.
Aren't we all.