Elvis Costello and his band had just finished an epic, withering version of "... Dust" Sunday afternoon when a woman in the center of the near-capacity crowd at Petrillo band shell softly called for "Alison."
The request couldn't have been heard from the stage. But as if on cue,Costello obliged, following one of his newest songs with one of his first and most familiar, using it to anchor a medley of hits by Smokey Robinson and that other Elvis.
Costello has spent most of the last decade consciously avoiding becoming an oldies act, stretching himself artistically by collaborating with the likes of classical musicians the Brodsky Quartet, easy listening icon Burt Bacharach, jazz guitarist Bill Frisell and opera singer Anne Sophie von Otter.
Yet even after returning to rock last year with his CD When I Was Cruel, Costello remains defined by the music from his angry-young-man days of more than 20 years ago. Those songs made up most of his set. And on "Alison," he tacitly acknowledged that in their own way they now are as much a part of pop music's past as "Tracks of My Tears" and "Suspicious Minds."
In a way, the mature Elvis Costello was covering the songs of his younger self, so it made sense that he loosened up the tightly knotted arrangements of the original versions for renditions that emphasized their garage rock roots.
He abandoned the soul groove of "Everyday I Write the Book" for churning guitar and walloping drums, turned "Less Than Zero" into a cheerleading session, and rolled breezily over what were the hills and valleys of "Pump It Up."
Former Cracker bassist Davey Faragher played rubbery grooves, and Pete Thomas' relentless drumming reached a peak on "Clubland."
But it was keyboard player Steve Nieve who, like Thomas, is a veteran of Costello's original backing band, the Attractions that kept the music on an emotional roller coaster with organ lines that seeped into the cracks of the songs, hovered over them, tumbled through them and chased them around the stage. Nieve may have been playing Costello's songs, but it was his show.
Costello still has a voice like a knife, and he used it to carve out his brittle melodies, but it's questionable how much he still feels the spiteful sentiments behind them. He was more animated mimicking soul man pleading during a version of Sam and Dave's "I Can't Stand Up For Falling Down" and more persuasive singing his heart out on the poignant ballad "Deep Dark Truthful Mirror."
He saved his venom for a bluesy version of Mose Allison's "Everybody's Crying Mercy," pointedly singing, "Everybody's crying 'peace on earth' just as soon as we win this war." Costello also dedicated the last song of his show, "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" to much-maligned Bush-bashers the Dixie Chicks.
For all the vitriol in his back catalog, on this afternoon it was as close to an act of defiance as Costello or his music ever got.