Elvis Costello opened his concert with "45," a paean to the view back from a midlife vantage point and a new song that's his most youthful, a cerbic offering since he was an a cerbic youth. Like the rest of the superb, sold-out show, it was vintage Costello — who in a 25-year career hasn't so much moved from angry young man to mature craftsman as he has fused the two with cantankerous grace.
After a decade experimenting endlessly with classical music, jazz orchestras, opera singers, and suave, Bacharachian pop, Costello released When I Was Cruel, his 22nd album, which recalls, but never recycles, the bitter, pointed records that made him a rock star. Last night he fitted old and new together like puzzle pieces: rousing "45" tumbled into "Oliver's Army," and a wildly wired "(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea" fed into "15 Petals," a maniacal new love song.
When your material is as good as Costello's, there's no need for fuss. This was a no-frills show: two original Attractions — drummer Pete Thomas and keyboard shaman Steve Nieve — and bassist Davey Faragher cobbled a robust rhythm section that matched their frontman for energy and style. A small, frankly useless fog machine was the sole bell and whistle, and songs flew by in no-nonsense fashion — with the exception of a few choice annotations from the composer.
"This one is about a show business weasel and his protege. That's French for a woman who likes to spend a man's money," he said in introduction to "Spooky Girlfriend," a creepily jocular lesson in lechery.
Costello is cunning in every regard: a wordsmith novelists and poets can respect, a purveyor of hooks that satisfy legions of pop fans, a musician who's overlaid a cranky singing voice and crankier guitar style onto some of the most sophisticated rock of his era. In signature form, Costello picked the cream of the new crop of songs and dropped them like fresh, prickly blooms among the classics. In this carefully designed time warp, each basked in the reflected glow of the other.
A package of back-to-back gems — the rarely-played nugget "You Little Fool" and skanky "Less Than Zero" — was followed by "When I Was Cruel No. 2," a dank, langorous glide into the nether-regions of damaged souls. If the former were daggers concealed in sweet mouthfuls of sugar, the title track from his latest is pure poison — all low, nasty guitar notes and troubling theremin — bubbling under a slick, honeyed surface.
The excessively polite crowd didn't rise en masse until song 16, when Costello launched into the raucously jaded anthem "(What's So Funny About) Peace, Love, and Understanding," which was chased by the twitchy "Radio, Radio." Both sounded as vital as ever, and so did Costello. He's exactly what we expect in an enduring artist: supremely reliable and full of surprises.
Joe Henry opened the show with a solo acoustic set of slow, soulful songs that were largely lost to the milling crowd and the cold wind.