Elvis Costello's toughest competition is his past. When an artist has written some of the thorniest, wittiest rock songs of the last decade, what does he do to top himself?
So it seemed fitting when Costello opened his show Saturday at the World Music Theatre with his 1978 classic "Accidents Will Happen," and its ironic opening line: "Oh, I just don't know where to begin..."
Costello, of course, knows exactly where he wants to begin and where he wants to go, but the path he chooses is not always the easiest to follow.
His two-hour, three-encore, 25-song show ignored most of the obvious "hits" ("Watching the Detectives," "Everyday I Write the Book," etc.) and instead blended a few early classics, lesser-known tunes and blues-flavored covers with a handful of cuts from his latest album, Mighty Like a Rose.
His tepid band of session pros, the Rude 5, was no match for Costello's longtime backing group, the Attractions, which he discarded several years ago. Even ex-Attractions drummer Pete Thomas sounded like a pale imitation of his former self.
In a manner reminiscent of two other widely misunderstood performers, Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead, Costello didn't just offer a note-for-note replication of his recordings, but a rethinking and in many cases a transformation of them.
In choosing to cover such wonderful obscurities as Mose Allison's "Everybody's Crying Mercy But They Don't Know the Meaning of the Word,"
Costello's unpredictability mirrored that of the Dead. And in overhauling well-known tunes such as "Alison" and even the current single "The Other Side of Summer," Costello played the Dylanish eccentric, tinkering with tunes his fans consider sacred.
Clearly, Costello isn't about to let himself become trapped by his past. He is instead a moving target, constantly trying to reinvent his art.
At times, however, this gave the performance a distanced, clinical quality, as if Costello were conducting a lab experiment for his own amusement. This was especially true of "Temptation," a taut, tensile tune that was turned into a clumsy stomp.
With his shoulder-length hair and scuzzy beard, and a few extra pounds, he looked like the frumpy older brother of the lean, edgy performer who emerged spitting bile out of England in 1977.
Yet when Costello turned on the juice he proved himself a more nuanced and evocative singer than ever, especially when he blended the tortured cabaret tune "So Like Candy" with the acidic "I Want You." Here he zeroed in on the line "Your fingernails go draggin' down the wall" as if that could somehow sum up and exorcise his frustration, before pounding a final nail into his heart: "Did you call his name out as he held you down?"
If Costello and the Rude 5 aren't quite the juggernaut that he and the Attractions were, that's hardly the point, because Costello is pushing ahead, with hardly a backward glance.