Resplendent in a baggy gray suit, black horned-rimmed glasses and shiny red patent leather shoes, Elvis Costello looked his rumpled best as he shouted, "It's nice to be back here at merry Merriweather."
Nor was attire his only strong point, for as he and his band, The Attractions, charged through 24 songs and five encores, they managed to prove conclusively that they are one of the most dynamic combinations in rock today.
Unlike Mr. Costello's last few tours, when he and The Attractions raced through their back catalog in a display of musical macho, yesterday's show found them applying themselves to extended explorations of Mr. Costello's material. Bolstered by the occasional assistance of the T.K.O. Horns, the songs often reached a near-symphonic expansiveness, but there was never any attempt to pad out the band's oeuvre. This was rock at its most visceral.
The first indication of how things were to go came in "Watching the Detectives." The song's reggae pulse was given a crisp, muscular treatment by The Attractions, and when the T.K.O. Horns entered with a jagged counter-riff, the song seemed almost to explode. Yet Mr. Costello remained fully in control vocally, playing off the instrumental energy to ring every bit of drama and mock suspense from the song.
Similar treatments were given to "Shabby Doll" and a medley of "Back Stabbers," "King Horse," "High Fidelity" and "Pump It Up." But musical fireworks aside, the most thrilling moment came when Mr. Costello applied himself as a singer.
Elvis Costello has everything a singer could want — great timing, solid melodic sense and a wonderful gift for phrasing — except a great voice. Still, the energy and conviction he put into his performances more than carried the day. From an anguished "Shabby Doll" to an exultant "Alison," Mr. Costello was able to make the audience suspend its disbelief and accord him an ovation due a Sinatra.
Fittingly, given Mr. Costello's affinities and the pavilion's proximity to Washington, there also was a good bit of politics involved. Some of it was spirited, as when Mr. Costello turned the English Beat's "Stand Down Margaret" into "Stand Down Ronny"; some of it was puzzling, particularly the taped opening that featured a song called "Keep the Red Flag Flying," sung to the tune of "O Tannenbaum." But at its best, as on the ballad "Shipbuilding," it combined partisan passion with musical grandeur.
If Elvis Costello can manage to remain this impressive every time out, he surely will become one of the major voices of this generation.