Fans of Elvis Costello will probably be comparing notes for weeks to come, about his three-night stand at the Orpheum over the weekend. Costello has been a changing character in recent years, taking on different styles and moods with each album. But he outdid himself over the weekend, presenting a different personality and a different set of music each night.
On Thursday it was the inspired silliness of his game-show format, with a wheel of fortune to pick the songs; onstage dancing by audience members; and Costello hamming it up as never before. A more intense Costello appeared on Friday, when he performed a soul-baring, three-hour set of ballads and blues. On Saturday he was back with his regular band, the Attractions, for a blistering show recalling his earlier, punkier days.
The riskiest and most rewarding show came on Friday, when Costello featured the songs from last winter's King of America — his slowest and saddest album — along with soul and r&b covers. Half the songs were done solo; the others featured the Confederates, an all-star backup group with guitarist James Burton and bassist Jerry Scheff (both Elvis Presley veterans), along with keyboardist Mitchell Froom and drummer Jim Keltner. The band was somewhat underused, as Costello missed the opportunity to rerarrange his old songs. But the King of America songs featured some of Costello's most expressive singing to date, and the group was superb.
Costello was warm and chatty for all three shows, a long way from his angry-young-man image in the late "70s. These were some of the weekend's standouts:
■ Two versions of Costello's current hit, "Tokyo Storm Warning," done as an acoustic opener Friday and as an electric opener Saturday. A dark-humored jumble of images presenting life as a B-movie, the song worked equally well as a Dylanesque ballad and a charging rocker.
■ A pair of trio numbers on Friday, with guest stars Aimee Mann and Jules Shear. Both received scattered boos on their entrance — the audience evidently wanted nothing but Costello — but they won over the crowd with acoustic versions of Shear's "If She Knew What She Wants" and Mann's "What About Love."
■ Anything played by guitarist James Burton on Friday. After 10 years with Elvis Presley, recent tours with Jerry Lee Lewis and a stack of records with Emmylou Harris and Rick Nelson, Burton is the foremost authority on country-rock guitar licks. His work on Friday was subtle and elegant, reaching a peak when he echoed Costello's screams on "Sleep of the Just."
■ A wide-ranging selection of cover tunes on all three nights. Costello reached the furthest on Friday, connecting with vintage soul ("It Tears Me Up," a fine screamer by Percy Sledge), jazzy swing (Mose Allison's "Your Mind Is On Vacation, Your Mouth is Working Overtime"); modern folk (Richard Thompson's "End of the Rainbow") and country standards ("The Only Daddy That'll Walk the Line"). Saturday's encore included a rockabilly raveup on Carl Perkins' "Leave My Kitten Alone."
■ A long, gripping version of "I Want You," before the encores on Saturday. Probably the year's most obsessive love song, it found Costello singing in a menacing whisper.
Costello made a few minor missteps, such as neglecting to perform "Everyday I Write the Book" (one of his biggest hits), and closing Saturday's show with the mean-spirited "Poor Napoleon." But he took plenty of chances over the weekend, honoring his punk roots with added depth and subtlety; and nearly everything paid off.