Newton — "You probably don't remember me," the bespectacled, self-proclaimed "beloved entertainer" said, upon walking on stage. "But I was there before you were born. I was a friend of your mother's."
Actually, Costello was plying his trade well before most of the college-age audience at Boston College's sold out Conte Forum had hit puberty. Costello is currently riding as high as he ever has; he's got Spike, a hot new album backed by a vast cast of musicians. So what does he do? He plays a short, low-profile college tour pretty much excluding the general public — which he kicked off at BC — and tours without a backing band. Backstage, he termed it "acoustic rock 'n' roll."
Which, except for one dizzying moment, it pretty much was. The moment? "Pump It Up," in which Costello plugged in an electric guitar, a taped rhythm track kicked in and Costello played a screeching, careening, wonderfully disorienting version of the song which could only be termed Costello-goes-acid house. (He also worked a bit of Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" into it.) It was — literally and figuratively — an electrifying moment, and as Costello keeps honing his show, he might want to include more of those. He reportedly has another five tunes on tap.
Costello's always loved varying sets and rearranging songs. Friday, many rearrangements included snippets or whole chunks of covers. Some highlights: a beautiful weave of the Beatles' "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" into "New Amsterdam," a fullblown rave-up of Van Morrison's "Jackie Wilson Said" after "Radio Sweetheart," and, most hilariously, a line from the Monkees' "Last Train to Clarksville" into "God's Comic." This latter bit came just after Costello — as God — mused that He should have turned over the world to "the monkeys." Monkeys/Monkees: Get it?
It was quite a splendid, generous (nearly two hours) show, with just a rare glitch or two, such as a guitar malfunction on "Veronica." These days, Costello is every bit the showman — there's some Ray Davies music-hall entertainer in him — and mixed obscurities and favorites. He shifted moods from the tension-fraught "Green Shirt" to the country tearjerking of "Almost Blue" to the rockabilly-retooled "Pads, Paws and Claws" to the obsessive, romantic brooding of "I Want You."
The place where the show needs some work is its second half, where Costello hauled out a large giant (broken) heart where various "sins" were attached as rolled-up banners. The sins were for such things as lust, avarice, gluttony, awesomeness and, yes, Geraldo. Someone in a wolf's costume waded into the boisterous audience and selected someone to come up on stage, be blindfolded and select a random sin. Then, they were supposed to select a Costello song that reflected that sin. As it turned out, what folks selected most were the old staples, such as "Alison," "Less Than Zero" and "Watching the Detectives" — songs that had little to do with the sin in question. It got a little predictable. But Costello sang them as if he meant them — although they're less tense and more gentle now — and he delivered pretty much all the goods for which one would hope.
Costello's pal, and new Warner Bros. recording artist, Nick Lowe opened with a set of his quick-witted faves and a couple of new ones. Lowe, who later joined Costello on "(What's So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding," was as self-deprecating and engaging as ever.