It's been ages since Elvis Costello made a record worth caring about, and even longer since he and the Attractions teamed up to make the attractive, literate racket his fans crave.
So it's understandable that Costello's visit to the Mitchell Pavilion at The Woodlands Sunday night brought out about 4,500 of the loyal faithful. If you think more people should have been there, listen to 1989's Spike, 1991's Mighty Like A Rose and last year's terminally pretentious The Juliet Letters back to back. It was as though Costello was drowning, waiting for someone to throw him a musical life preserver.
Well, reuniting with the Attractions — Steve Nieve on keyboards, Bruce Thomas on bass and Pete Thomas on drums — was the saving trick. The album they made, Brutal Youth, clatters to life often enough to be inspiring.
In concert Sunday, however, the best moments were the old, feral things like "Lipstick Vogue" and "Waiting for the End of the World." Costello and the Attractions paid little attention to each other, looking like blokes with a job to do. Musically, they meshed in a way that relies more on instinct and history than hitting every lick correctly.
For the most part, Costello's live instincts are very much intact. You don't do three encores just to torment people. Costello approached each return with a keen ear for the whole yin-yang thing. "Vogue" was leavened by "Party Girl." During encore two, "Just About Glad" met its match in "Alison," which was much better than the Linda Ronstadt version. But the band tore into "Accidents Will Happen," and it seemed like the night was ending for good.
Didn't happen. The third and final encore was propelled by a deliciously gnarly version of Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding." Costello closed with "Pump It Up," which seemed just right somehow.
Costello and the Attractions did a respectable job of balancing the new songs from Brutal Youth with the history lessons. "Oliver's Army" and "I Want You" would have been great to hear, but were conspicuously absent. The Youth songs seem a bit more lifelike live, and the best lines shone out like animal eyes on the night highway. Hearing "Pony St." reminded us that Costello is one of the few songwriters on earth who can juxtapose Das Kapital and home shopping club, and figure his listeners will catch the joke.