One of the great things about the duo of Elvis Costello and his longtime keyboardist Steve Nieve is that, outside of a few staples like "Alison" and "Almost Blue," you never know what items from Costello's huge catalog of compositions they're going to perform — or, more enticingly, how they're going to perform them.
Appearing at Park West on Wednesday (they'll take their act across town Friday to the Arie Crown), they continually kept things unpredictable with arresting textures ranging from the arhythmic acoustic strumming on "(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea" to the atonal electric convulsions on "Watching the Detectives."
And as a singer, Costello brought new slants and shadows — and humor — to songs you may have thought were beyond them. It's a given that his early classics are going to come across very differently, stripped of their punk-rockish petulance and plumped with middle-aged emotion. But it is less his aging as an entertainer than his — forgive the expression — maturity as a vocalist that has brought about the most meaningful changes.
While cutting to the emotional quick as decisively as ever, he relies less on attitude and more on gumption — on throwing the weight of his experience into his phrasing. Touring with Burt Bacharach last year, he got carried away with himself, straining for emotional knockout punches on every song. This time around, he still poured pop-operatic intensity into "What's Her Name Today?" from their 1998 collaboration, Painted from Memory. But his strokes were sharper and more deft, his exaggerated vibrato more controlled.
Costello, who as usual has multiple projects in the works, offered a sampling of new material. None of these songs stood out — though it must be said it was difficult to make out the lyrics, even in this fan-friendly venue. Once celebrated for his wordplay (he may have been the first singer-songwriter to be tagged "the next Cole Porter"), he seems to have relaxed his fierce wit in the interest of telling character stories, including one about a housewife fancying a deliveryman.
A collaboration with Carole King was disappointingly bland. Another new song, "45," which is about turning that age, was all thrust and parry.
But there was enough of a sense of play in the older tunes to give the show a steady momentum. On "Radio Sweetheart," he spontaneously broke into Van Morrison's "Jackie Wilson Said." "Little Triggers" was marked by desperate feeling. Throughout, the music was kept afloat by Nieve's classical flourishes and emphatic chords, which on "Detectives" pressed the melody beneath resounding slabs of sound.
Since Costello's band, the Attractions, began winding down, he has experimented in all sorts of expansive settings, ranging from a classical string quartet to a new instrumental makeover of his album with Bacharach by modern jazz guitarist Bill Frisell. But in the end, it is the duo that finds him at his freest and easiest — and his most agreeably self-renewing.