Elvis Costello told the audience Saturday at the Murat Theatre he couldn't remember the last time he played Indianapolis. In fact, it was more than 20 years ago.
The near-sellout crowd did everything it could to welcome him back. Fans welcomed him with a standing ovation as he took the stage. They welcomed him by cheering and clapping at the end of virtually every verse.
They welcomed him by bringing him back out for four encores.
Costello paid them back for the good feelings, playing songs that covered his near-25-year career, from "Alison" from 1977's My Aim Is True, to "Toledo" from 1998's Painted from Memory. He also played two new songs, with "A Teacher's Tale" making its debut before an audience.
With Costello on guitar and keyboardist Steve Nieve playing grand piano, songs took on a sparse and stark quality, appropriate for a singer who started the night with "Alibi," which contains the lyric "I love you just as much / as I hate your guts."
Most of Costello's songs responded well to the stripped-down piano and guitar arrangements, which also worked well with the intimate seating at the Murat, which is much wider than it is deep, so all the seats were surprisingly close to the stage.
The intimacy and starkness were definitely advantages for the Costello show. He sang about serious things ? love, broken hearts, death, longing and loneliness. But he did it with humor and anger and indignation.
Even after all these years, Costello can't figure out why he doesn't get the girl and why true love can't conquer all. And he doesn't get sad, he gets angry, railing and moaning against the injustice of it all.
The crowd, ranging from college students to professionals who were in high school when Costello hit it big in the late '70s, ate it all up. And Costello responded to their enthusiasm with the timing of an experienced performer, using dramatic pauses to draw cheers, raising an eyebrow for a laugh, leading the rapt crowd on sing-alongs and call and responses. His voice, one of the best in popular music, varied from taunting to lonely to venomous, never failing to convey just the right emotion.
During his first set, a surprisingly rocking version of "(I Don't Want To Go To) Chelsea," drew a great response, as did the powerful "What's Her Name," about a man who hurts women to get back at the woman who hurt him.
That's the kind of complicated, emotional issue Costello sneaks into his pop songs. Another, "Just About Glad," which deals with the regret that a relationship never developed, seemed to surprise many in the audience, especially as Costello strained to reach the final notes.
"I always thought that one should have been a single," he said. Even more highlights came during the encores, as he played some of his greatest hits, including "Everyday I Write the Book" and a jazzy "Watching the Detectives." He concluded the third encore with "I Want You," a song for which the word "haunting" is an understatement.
He came back for a fourth encore, responding to audience chants of "One more time!" Before finishing the final set by singing "Couldn't Call It Unexpected No. 4" without the aid of a microphone, he told the devoted audience that, although it had been a long time, he would be back in Indianapolis again soon.