Elvis Costello has long been regarded as a penetrating wordsmith, a songwriter who creates minutely detailed conflicts and uncommonly fleshed-out characters. In concert, however, the words haven't always carried the weight they could. In fact, the last time Costello played the area, with the Attractions and a horn section at Cape Cod Coliseum. the show was bogged down by muddy sound and trivializing, showbizzy arrangements that made the rock 'n' roll flaccid and Costello's lyrical acumen nearly moot.
At the Orpheum Wednesday night, a sellout audience got a rare chance to see Costello up close and hear songs stripped to the emotional core. It was rock 'n' roll played without a rock 'n' roll band. 34 songs that stood tall and proud without full instrumentation. Costello utilized four main instruments, an acoustic Marlin guitar, an electric Telecaster, a grand piano and an electric organ, and put the focus on mood and lyrics. Many songs — "Clowntime Is Over," "New Amsterdam" and "Riot Act" in particular — took on more melancholic, haunted, pained qualities. Those qualities were always there, of course, but with a band it was easier to listen to the beat, the uptempo flow, and let Costello's words drift to the side.
There was no dodging Costello's visions Wednesday. He followed the ever-quick and clever T Bone Burnett with a long, splendid set. The music simultaneously felt like a caress and a frontal attack. Beginning with the apologetic "Accidents Will Happen" and closing with a new song, the bitterly ironic. "Peace In Our Time," Costello took the audience on an intense, emotional jag. Yet, between songs he was warm, witty and modest, a friendly host who easily stepped into the role of emotional singer-songwriter.
What came through most strikingly was Costello's careful attention to phrasing and nuance. On both guitar and voice, he'd move songs from a whisper to a scream. Another side also came front and center: Elvis the soul shouter, a singer who throws himself into stark songs with from-the-gut feeling. "Just a Memory," an emotional song about fighting off emotion, was magnificent as was the new "Home Truth," where Costello sang "I'd put back the pieces but I don't know where to start."
Although relatively unadorned, the music had visceral, as well as intellectual, impact. The set ranged from restrained menace ("Green Shirt") to heartfelt passion (a new, stirring "I love you!, I love you!" coda to "Alison"), and included encores that skewered colonial politics of America ("Peace In Our Time") and Britain ("Shipbuilding"). Costello played a batch of obscure covers — songs by Bob Dylan, June Tabor, Jerry Dammers, Charley Pride and others — and six songs from the upcoming album, Goodbye Cruel World. Rest assured: Costello's back with the Attractions for the album and will tour with them after its release. This 15-date tour is just a side trip. But if Wednesday's performance was typical, it's been some kind of journey.