Elvis Costello and the Rude Five played Costello's politically and emotionally charged songs to a full house of over 6,000 at the Universal Amphitheatre Tuesday night.
Dressed in conservative, neutral colored suits and clothing, the musicians put the focus on music played with a dash, rather than on-stage flash.
The opening number, "Accidents Will Happen," is an old favorite of hardcore Costello fans.
"He sings with passion," one fan commented and she was right. Tirelessly, Costello played two and a half hours of Costello then and now. Songs from his most recent album Spike were intermingled with his past albums in a satisfying, varied mix.
Costello is a master "crooner" who knows how to use his voice to convey meaning. He also instinctively knows when to really belt those lyrics out.
His songs received the excellent treatment they deserved with his back-up band The Rude Five.
Drummer Pete Thomas, Jerry Scheff on bass, Keyboardist Larry Knechtel, Guitarists Steven Soles and Marc Ribot along with percussionist Michael Blair played Costello's music with such finesse it was surprising to learn they had recently joined Costello.
Following a fast, upbeat tune, Costello slid into his anti-capital punishment tune "Let him dangle." Costello is known for his vibrant lyrics that cut to the bottom line on social issues.
With this song he portrays the injustice of a death sentence verdict:
If killing anybody is a terrible crime
Why does this bloodthirsty chorus come around from time to time
Let him dangle.
Later, he sang "God's Comic," a satire about fear of the afterlife from one of God's comics: a priest drooling with drink and the lipstick and the greasepaint, down the cardboard front of my dirty dog-collar.
God's response to the pleading of comics like the priest is Now dead, Now I'm dead, Now I'm dead ... and you're all going to meet your reward, Are you scared? Are you scored? ...
In the middle, of the piece, Costello launches into a dialogue with the audience and names some of the people he calls "God's comics," like those who colorize old black and white movies, CIA drug dealers and Exxon's president.
Costello encouraged the audience to sing along during the chorus and then, being a quick change artist, altered the atmosphere by playing a haunting love song about the need to hide your feelings called "Radio Sweetheart."
The British rocker, a strong opponent of Margaret Thatcher, next played "Tramp the Dirt Down." A litany of hate directed at Britain's prime minister, the song expressed his wish to outlive Thatcher so he can tramp the dirt down on her grave.
The lyrics to this tune were stunning, whatever a person's political viewpoint, because Costello has a genuis's gift for stringing words together and producing profound art.
Particularity moving were the lyrics at the beginning of the song"
I saw a newspaper picture from the political campaign
A woman was kissing a child, who was obviously in pain
She spills with compassion, as that young child's
face in her hands she grips
Can you imagine all that greed and avarice
coming down on that child's lips
Then several faster songs with a more personal tone were performed, like "Red Shoes" and "Girl Talk" which was originally a Buddy Holly song. Apparently. Costello avoids singing his political tunes in succession.
The subject matter was often serious, but Costello knows when to engage the audience with amusing banter, displaying a cynical but not vicious sense of humor.
He can afford to laugh because he already knows he has made you think.
Rollicking jazzy music was often present, giving his listeners a good beat to move and dance to.
When he played "...This Town...," it became evident that his live performance far outdoes his album, Spike.
Instead of being adulterated with poor acoustics or yawning delivery as with some performers, Costello's style is delivered with fire, playing as if he were a young, broke musician who needs to win the audience over.
Generous with his encores, Costello appeared four times after his "final" number, "What's an funny about peace, love and understanding."
Among his encore songs were "Allison" and the Spike album tunes "Pads, Paws and Claws," the catchy "Veronica" and the insightful "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror."
Pointing his guitar upwards and then slamming it down through the air in a signature Costello move, he ended with a "God Bless."