Elvis Costello shared the bounty of a brilliant career with 1,200 people at Sunrise Musical Theatre on Sunday by performing a box set's worth of music.
Costello and perennial sideman Steve Nieve on piano played more than three dozen songs for a delighted crowd that barely shrank as the duo headed toward the three-hour mark. From "Alison" to "Veronica" to "God Give Me Strength," the songs rained down like pages of sheet music tossed every which way. The duo scrolled through Costello's evolution — new-wave upstart, eclectic rocker, pop maestro. By the close, Costello and Nieve had left everything onstage except their clothing.
It was an overwhelmingly generous performance, and far from nostalgic, Costello's many "before you were born" jokes to the crowd notwithstanding. Familiar songs showed up in strange colors all night. A new-fangled rhythm machine gave "Clubland," a longstanding fan favorite, a techno pulse. Coupled with Costello's rippling, distorted guitar strokes, the song would have resounded as comfortably with college-age Radiohead and Blur freaks as with Elvis die-hards.
In addition to the fresh arranging demanded by a two-piece setup, Costello, "45," also dropped new material. He opened with "Alibi," a heartsick rocker debuted on this tour, singing its poison-pen lyric and barbed melody in a voice that has become stronger, more textured, with age. He churned out its three-chord hook on what looked like the same skinny electric guitar he wielded on his first album cover, 22 years ago. Another unrecorded gem, 45, found the narrator blowing dust off an old vinyl record and drolly comparing its nicks and grooves to his own.
Age has put some pounds on Costello, who once looked too anxiety-wracked to ever gain weight. But he still wears those owlish eyeglasses — the fashion world is only just catching up — and his songwriting remains wiry and flexible. To the business of interpreting his own songs, Costello brought agility, a mastery bred by experience and the confidence to further meddle with already perfect works.
A picky fan could argue points: whether Costello ought to get over his fascination with melancholy piano pop; whether every song is well-served by two-piece arrangements; whether Costello and Nieve let a few loose threads show. They did. "Accidents Will Happen" came unglued as the duo tried to pull an inspired ending out of a cacophony of improvised notes.
A new song co-written by Nieve, "You Lie Sweetly," was far too serious-minded musically and lyrically for the topic at hand: a couple finding the previous night's bliss not so blissful in the harsh morning light. Costello was wittier introducing the song than singing it.
But small flaws and arguments about direction paled on Sunday before an outpouring of brilliant tunes: "Pump It Up," "Beyond Belief," "Red Shoes," "Chelsea," "Little Triggers," "Girls Talk" and "Watching the Detectives," to name a few, plus a version of "Radio Sweetheart" in which Costello quoted a bit of Van Morrison and led a sing-along.
It was as good an ending to the 20th century as anybody could hope for. If it happened to come two months early, well, Costello has made a career of being out front.