GRAND PRAIRIE — Whenever pop artists mess with their signature sound in concert, they're taking a risk of chasing people to the beer stand or, worse, chasing them out well before the show ends, disappointed and upset that they'd just blown some major bucks.
But Elvis Costello fans should expect risk by now: He has spent a good deal of his 30-year-plus career exploring different genres, whether it be classical, late-night crooning, Burt Bacharach pop or the bluegrass-inflected material on his latest album, Secret, Profane & Sugarcane.
That album's sound — which borrows from bluegrass via Jerry Douglas' dobro, Mike Compton's mandolin and Stuart Duncan's fiddle, but isn't really bluegrass — dominated Costello's performance Wednesday night at Nokia Theatre. But the show branched out well beyond that album.
Costello and the Sugarcanes (the above musicians along with guitarist/vocalist Jim Lauderdale, bassist Dennis Crouch and accordion player Jeff Taylor) played a few songs from the new CD, leaning hard on its best cuts, such as "Hidden Shame," which Costello wrote for Johnny Cash; the ribald "Sulphur to Sugarcane"; and the lovely "Changing Partners."
But it was clear from the opening number, a rollicking version of the other Elvis' "Mystery Train," that Costello was going to mix things up. He quickly got around to a reworking of "Mystery Dance," off his debut album, My Aim is True, and the countrified version added irony and detracted sting from what was originally an angry song about sexual confusion.
There were other rearrangements of old material, and although they were all intriguing, the new instrumentation served some songs better than others. "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," which closed the show, worked especially well, but the redone versions of "Blame It On Cain" and "Everyday I Write the Book," came off more as curios than revelations.
The small, mostly appreciative crowd seemed to get into it, though, especially when Costello threw in wild cards such as covers of the Rolling Stones' "Happy." And those who stuck it out through the encore were treated to the cute if surreal sight of Costello serenading a guitar-wielding toddler named laden, who was brought on stage during "Alison."
But this was part of Costello's relaxed, jovial mood throughout the night, during which he cracked wise several times about playing in Grand Prairie, about the frigid temperatures in the theater and about advice from his father. Anyone who has watched his Sundance Channel show Spectacle knows how the former "angry young man" has become more like an amusing, intellectually curious uncle.
If he wants to gather a bunch of friends for front-porch versions of his and others' songs, well, it might not be for everyone, but it's hard to hold it against him.