About halfway through his concert with pianist Steve Nieve at Meadow Brook on Tuesday, Elvis Costello pulled out a real chestnut: "Radio Sweetheart," the B-side to his first British single, written when he was still considering a career in country-rock instead of angry punk. As Costello sang the chorus, the audience, without prompting, chimed in to provide the backup vocal.
"You know, Pink Floyd had a giant inflatable pig," mused Costello as he vamped on guitar. "The Rolling Stones had an inflatable woman....
"But when I started in this business, when I dreamed of the future, I imagined me up here with three girls, singing backup. Not much to wish for...
"Instead, he said, waving our way in mock indignity, "I got this."
This was a lawn full of people between 30 and their 50s, most as familiar with Costello's latest work lush art-pop written with Burt Bacharach as the songs that established Costello early on as a songwriter posing as a punk to get attention.
He played those, too — "Alison," "Watching the Detectives" and even "Temptation," which, in its new baroque arrangement by Nieve, is as harmonically sophisticated as any of the songs written with Bacharach.
Considering that post-Tin Pan Alley pop is far past middle age, it's frightening how few songwriters of true craftsmanship subsequent generations have produced.
Part of this comes from the personalized paths taken after rock got so serious. Most compositions by Van Morrison, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, often with odd keys and tempos, were meant to be sung only by themselves.
But the truly great writers to emerge — Lennon-McCartney, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Costello, Tom Waits and Randy Newman — were never restricted by their personal voices.
Randy Newman, who has an amazingly good new album out called Bad Love, was perhaps the least restricted. In his past three decades, Newman has time-tripped through centuries to tell stories, spew opinions and make observations. Newman had a couple of so-called mistake hits.
People got the jokes, if not the irony, in "Short People" and "I Love L.A." But Newman's honesty and intelligence, not to mention his weedy voice, put most casual listeners off, and he turned to writing movie scores. Bad Love is his first new album in a decade.
Tom Waits, another great composer cursed with a distinctive voice in both senses of the word, recently released "Mule Variations," his first new album in six years. It opens with a song that offers the reasons he has failed to find the mark "Got the wheel, but not the truck."
Newman's song "I'm Dead (But I Don't Know It)" addresses the incongruity of his hanging around: "I have nothing to say / But I'm going to say it anyway. / Thirty years on the stage / And I hear the people say / Why won't he go away?"
Costello, now in his 40s, has never gone away. Tuesday's concert just a man, his guitar, a piano and his songs was a stunner. For 2½ hours, he pulled out one great song after another, almost all written or co-written by him.
When Nieve returned to his piano for the third encore, I noticed how thick that book he put on his music stand really was and remembered how I used to sneer when people put down a three-minute rock tune by comparing it to the songbooks of Gershwin, Porter and Ellington. Now, I'm proud just to be in the chorus.